Can a mild-mannered state bureaucrat lure an Eastwood thriller to Maryland?


March 24, 1996|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

VENICE, CALIF. - A small, dark Chevy swings into a parking space a block or so off Muscle Beach, and Michael B. Styer unfolds himself from the front passenger seat and into the Pacific breeze.

He pulls on his blue blazer, straightens his patterned tie and from the trunk gathers up two photo albums depicting scenes from Baltimore and Maryland. Then, edging past a couple of tawny in-line skaters, he makes his way across a narrow street to a squat, two-story townhouse. Waiting inside is the possibility of 10 or 11 weeks of film production in Maryland and millions of dollars.

"This," says Mr. Styer, director of the Maryland Film Office, "is a real hot prospect."

If he sounds as if he is in sales, that is precisely how Mr. Styer sees himself. Not entertainment. Not government work. Sales.

His product is the state of Maryland, his potential customers are Hollywood movie and television executives, and his aim is to put the likes of Sharon Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in front of cameras in Baltimore, Bethesda or Bowie.

He wants to make us Fantasy Land's fantasy land.

Today, he's making sales calls.

He and his staff are doing the rounds of some of the hundreds of production houses that in Los Angeles are nearly as plentiful as convenience stores. And, he's trying to stay ahead of the competition.

A couple of days from now, Mr. Styer's counterparts from all over the globe will gather downtown at the civic center for their annual trade show, where they will try to sell their settings to Hollywood.

It's no wonder why they are here. Few industries can offer so many benefits and so few drawbacks. Movie making is both free-spending and environmentally clean. It does not require continuing government services such as schools or libraries. It is boon to tourism, and it can add luster to a region's national reputation.

Undoubtedly, the critically admired television series "Homicide" has given a touch of glamour to Baltimore, not to mention distinction. It is one of the few shows shot outside Los Angeles. Thanks to its success, a second show, a family drama called "Falls Road" is now shooting a pilot in the city. If NBC picks it up for the fall, Baltimore could be the location for a second hour-long dramatic series.

All this is in addition to a steady flow of feature-film production here, including, most recently, Jodie Foster's "Home for the Holidays" and "12 Monkeys," starring Bruce Willis. Maryland has attracted between $40 million and $60 million a year worth of TV and motion picture production.

Still, Mr. Styer is not satisfied. "There's so much more potential out there," he says. "I think we could do five-fold what we do now, if we could pull out all the stops."

Which is why he is standing outside this townhouse. For him and his crew, it's show time. Rules of the game

Rule No. 1 for getting films made in your town: Forget the script.

Baltimore has played itself in plenty of television shows and movies, from "Diner" to "The Accidental Tourist" to "Homicide." But it has doubled for other places as well. It was Cleveland in "Major League 2" and New York City in "Her Alibi." It was the nation's capital in "Dave" and "Meteor Man." In "Violets are Blue," starring Sissy Spacek, Baltimore even did a turn as Dublin, Ireland.

And earlier this month, a producer and director visited the city to look at possible sites for "Washington Square," a Disney adaptation of a Henry James novel that takes place in the New York and Paris of the 1850s.

Of course, reversal is fair game. Several years ago, Pittsburgh played Baltimore in a television movie. Its title: "Incident in Baltimore."

Rule No. 2 for getting films made in your town: Don't forget the script.

Getting the script is often the key to getting the movie. Most of "12 Monkeys" was to be filmed in Philadelphia until Mr. Styer's people saw the script and were able to match director Terry Gilliam's dark vision for the film with images of the Power Plant, the Engineering Society and the Cloisters Museum.

Similarly, Jodie Foster was considering Boston for "Home for the Holidays" until the Maryland Film Office blanketed her with photographs of Baltimore's Hamilton neighborhood, which fit the settled, working-class setting she envisioned for her movie. It didn't hurt that the office also showed that Baltimore gets less snow than Boston in February, the month the film had to be shot.

Rule No. 3 for getting films made in your town: Forget the script or not; it doesn't matter.

A year or so ago, Virginia seemed to have the inside track as a location site for a new Steven Seagal thriller. But then Maryland got hold of the script and began the hard sell. It appeared to pay off. The producers decided to dump the Old Dominion in favor of the Free State.

Then, six weeks before shooting was to begin, Warner Bros. dumped the movie altogether. Stop one: Hot prospect

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