Park Service wants cash, not credits, for its movie locations

September 17, 1997|By Frank Greve | Frank Greve,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- In the years since Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint scrambled down the presidential faces of Mount Rushmore to flee from bad guys in Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 classic "North by Northwest, " America's national parks have starred in scores of movies.

But the nation's grandest parks generally have earned less than extras -- and often nothing -- for their unique roles. And that is remarkable, considering that Hollywood films shot in national parks, including such blockbusters as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," have grossed more than $3.2 billion. "It's simply disgusting," says Roger Kennedy, who stepped down recently as director of the National Park Service, "that there isn't a linkage made between the enormous amount of money made using parks as sets for movies and a flow of funds that would help the park service teach visitors what is really there.

"One side, the illusion side, is enormously, opulently prospering; the other, the reality side, is starved," Kennedy frets. In recent years, the park service's budget has not kept pace with inflation, he says, let alone visitor increases. He says he favors a hefty new location fee for moviemakers -- a percentage of proceeds earmarked for a park service account to educate rangers and visitors to their parks.

Kathleen Milnes, vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America's California group, rejects that idea, but she says the big Hollywood studios she represents might accept a $500-a-day fee. Currently, there is no such fee.

By comparison, the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, which supervises land of less public value than national parks, charges location fees of up to $700 a day. The U.S. Forest Service, run by the Agriculture Department, charges up to $3,500. Unique private sites, particularly high-maintenance gardens and mansions, charge thousands more. Shooting in Yosemite is cheaper than shooting on a Los Angeles street corner. The city charges a $375-a-day fee for streets, $400 more to film in a city park. Public beaches cost up to $700.

Popular Arches

Location fees, depending on their size, could be a bonanza for national parks. The park service keeps no central records of filmmaking, but one small, popular Utah park -- Arches National Park -- has averaged 52 filmmakers a year in the last five years. You know the place from "Thelma and Louise" and "Indiana Jones." But it has proven popular, too, with East Indian and German filmmakers. Not to mention commercial-makers for Miller beer, the Acura Legend and exported Marlboros.

Sometimes shoots last forever. Producers of the movie "Maverick," for example, spent nearly a year at Yosemite National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona, which the park service runs. Other times, parks are backdrops, essential but shot quickly, as in "North by Northwest," with the time-consuming action shot in studios.

Kennedy, the senior federal official to consider location fees for national parks, says he was too busy fighting park budget-cutters in Congress to pursue the idea. Lawmakers who'd have to approve haven't pursued it either. The relationship between the National Park Service and Hollywood began before movies could talk, but these days there is often friction.

Park rangers confront filmmakers over their scripts' historical accuracy. Rangers whose mandate is to preserve parks, confront local business promoters eager to bring in swarms of free-spending moviemakers. And Hollywood's old argument, that it served as the park service's marketing department, no longer cuts it with rangers overwhelmed by visitors.

To film in a park, moviemakers first must apply to a park's superintendent or chief ranger for a permit that costs from $25 to $200, depending on the park. The permit is supposed to be granted unless the movie-making will disrupt visitors or damage the park, and as long as filmmakers agree to pay the park service's costs of accommodating them. But discretion lies with local rangers, who are nearly as powerful and independent as admirals, and with them the question of compensation also often arises, although it's not supposed to.

National Park Service officials, who raised visitor fees last summer to as much as $20 a carload, say they are barred from charging location fees to commercial filmmakers and still photographers by an agency regulation that dates from the 1950s.

"Institutional knowledge of why we did this is apparently gone," concludes park service press aide Elaine Sevy after queries to staff lawyers.

Donations

But compensation sometimes comes, according to park officials, the form of donations by film companies. Though park superintendents can't officially solicit them, filmmakers say they are usually hit up and usually give.

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