Hollywood on the Monongahela?

June 24, 1991

Is Baltimore's recent surge as a haven for feature filmmakers ending? Have the area's film unions priced Baltimore out of the cinematic market? Will Pittsburgh, with its non-union film crews, now replace Baltimore as one of Hollywood's favorite locales for shooting realistic urban sequences?

That is a sad but increasingly likely scenario. How else do you explain the relocation of one TV movie, "Cobb's Law" from Charm City to Steel City? The shift saved 10 percent of the production cost -- even though the film was scripted to take place in Baltimore. To movie viewers, Pittsburgh will be made to look visually like our city.

For a while, Baltimore thrived as a film location. The city received rave reviews from producers and directors. Government cooperation was excellent. The variety of set locations within a short distance proved appealing. And unions were happy to bend the rules to help production budgets.

But something has changed. The economic recession forced film studios to keep a sharper eye on filmmaking costs. A union jurisdictional dispute disrupted Baltimore's labor environment. Less flexibility from the unions deterred some filmmakers from coming to town. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh began aggressively promoting its lower-cost advantage and its eager-to-please local government.

What can be done to revive this flagging industry that last year poured $42 million into Maryland's economy? How can this region once more become Hollywood on the Chesapeake?

State and local governments have to do some soul-searching on ways to lure back filmmakers. Should these governments underwrite part of the cost of feature films made largely in Maryland to spur economic development? Should the state take the lead in forming private-sector investment groups willing to put money into made-in-Maryland films? Are there ways government can save money for production crews?

At the same time, local union officials cannot ignore the loss of feature films due to Baltimore's labor situation. New flexibility and eagerness to accommodate bottom-line producers are crucial. The threat from low-wage locations such as Pittsburgh and Canada is real, and growing.

Baltimore's emergence as a mecca for filmmakers proved a boost for the region's economy and gave state residents a tremendous sense of pride. It will take big adjustments by government and labor to keep the cameras rolling. We can't afford to let Baltimore's sound stage go dark.

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