Baltimore becoming pricey ticket for filmmakers


June 16, 1991|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Maryland Film Commission

The television film seemed like the perfect candidate for 1/2 shooting in Baltimore. It had, by industry standards, the kind of modest budget -- $3.5 million -- that all but assured its making outside the expensive film centers of Los Angeles and New York. What's more, the story about a lawyer, played by Walter Matthau, trying to free a woman from a state mental institution in the 1940s was actually set in Baltimore.

In fact, the film's producers spent several weeks scouting locations here. But when it came time to begin shooting earlier this spring, they spurned the city that had been the site for such movies as ". . . And Justice for All," "The Acciden tal Tourist" and "Avalon."

"Cobb's Law," which completed filming last month, is tentatively scheduled to air on CBS early next year -- still with the verbal references to Baltimore, but with Pittsburgh providing the visual backdrop.

"We would have liked to have shot the picture [in Baltimore]," explains Dan Martin, executive vice president for production at RHI Entertainment, the New York-based company that developed the project.

"But we were on a limited budget and were looking to economize as much as possible. Baltimore is union, Pittsburgh is non-union. Pittsburgh is cheaper."

The loss of "Cobb's Law" has contributed to the recent dearth of feature filmmaking in Maryland, where, with a boost from home-grown directors John Waters and Barry Levinson, some three dozen pictures have been partially or totally shot in the last dozen years.

Although a handful of deals are said to be in the works, no Hollywood movie has been shot here since "Homicide," scheduled for fall release, wrapped up its shooting last November.

The lack of activity has led to questions about whether Maryland has been permanently overtaken as an attractive movie-making locale or has lost a significant amount of momentum.

"We were on a run," says Pat Moran, longtime associate producer for John Waters and co-owner of a local casting agency.

She cites an approximately three-year period from 1987 to 1990 that saw in rapid succession the filming of "Accidental Tourist," "Clara's Heart," "Hairspray," "Her Alibi" and others. "How can you have all that work and then all of a sudden have no work? I'm afraid we're pricing ourselves out of the market."

Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, director of the Maryland Film Commission, which promotes the state as a filmmaking area, admits the feature film industry has been in a "slow cycle" here but is not ready to write 1991 off as a total loss.

"Usually we do two to three big productions a year," he says. "We still may do what we normally do. We're very close on four major productions, though that means nothing to me until they're here.

"I believe we'll get projects here. I don't believe we'll be a blank. But I don't know. This is entertainment."

Mr. Schlossberg-Cohen says that the local film industry is at a crossroads as well as in a trough. "We've had consistency," he says. "Now our goal is to grow. Can we? How do we? That's what we're trying to work on."

Besides the economic benefits of feature filmmaking, which pumped in an estimated $42 million to the state last year, there are also the psychic rewards from having a major motion picture shot here.

"It's a sense of tremendous pride for people," says Tom Kiefaber, an owner of the historic Senator Theatre, which has hosted the premieres of virtually all the made-in-Baltimore movies.

"They come out of the theater beaming about their city." "We're still very star-struck in this town," he adds. "We think it's neat when they close off streets because they're filming a movie."

When the movie is actually set in Baltimore, that feeling is compounded. Mr. Levinson's "Avalon," the story of a Jewish immigrant family that spent three months on location in and around the city, drew 60,000 people during a 10-week run at the Senator last fall -- the highest attendance for the picture recorded by any house in the country, according to Mr. Kiefaber.

But it's not only feature filmmaking that's in the doldrums locally. The less glamorous commercial and industrial end of the business, which accounts for 10 times as much economic impact, is also experiencing a downturn.

Mr. Schlossberg-Cohen says that he doesn't know how much it is off because the film commission, with an annual budget of just $350,000, doesn't have the money to conduct a survey.

Those involved in such projects say their business is off between third and a half, which they attribute to corporate cutbacks in advertising as well as a reduction in training and promotional videos, all a result of the recession.

If the state of the economy explains the downturn in commercial and industrial filmmaking, the answer to the months-long paucity of feature filmmaking here is not so simple.

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