A Show Must Go On

Maryland's wounded film industry tries to stanch the 'Homicide' economic and creative hemorrhage by persuading Hollywood that the show's death is actually an opportunity.

May 20, 1999|By MIKE OLLOVE

During Saturday's Preakness Stakes, Michael Styer, head of the Maryland Film Office, was at another race track on the other side of the country, playing host to 200 television and movie executives.

To say the least, the timing of this long-planned "Preakness in Hollywood" party was awkward. The event was intended to help lure film production to Maryland, but it came just two days after filmmaking here received its worst ever setback. On Thursday, NBC canceled "Homicide: Life on the Street," the critically acclaimed television series that had greatly enhanced Baltimore's credentials with Hollywood studios and established its credibility in television production.

For years, Styer had touted "Homicide" in his trips to Los Angeles. The show had proven that a studio could make a distinctive, episodic TV drama outside Los Angeles or New York. It had showcased a talented, indigenous crew of filmmaking professionals in Maryland. And it had demonstrated that a TV series could be shot as cheaply here as any in California.

But as of Thursday, "Homicide" was gone, and with the corpse still warm, here was Styer with a roomful of Hollywood executives who were munching crab cakes at the Hollywood Park Racetrack and wondering how Styer would put a good face on this grim development. What was he going to say now?

Essentially, what he came up with was this: "Hey, great news everyone! `Homicide' has been canceled."

Was he mad? Not exactly. Like any pitchman, Styer was trying to spin a negative into a positive. True, Styer told the executives, "Homicide" was history after a much honored run, but most of the crew that had created it and many of the facilities where it had been produced are still here. They are just waiting to be put to use by any producer smart enough to step in. "The door is open," he told them.

Styer understood that while "Homicide" had been an unqualified blessing for Maryland's film industry, it probably also had prevented him from nabbing another series for the state. "Homicide" had shown that Maryland could mount a TV series while movies were being filmed here, too. But Hollywood seemed skeptical that the state could handle two continuing television productions.

"The problem has been that it's been very hard to convince the studios that we could sustain two series at the same time here," Styer says. The irony of the cancellation of "Homicide," he says, is that it gives the state a better chance of nabbing a new television series.

But it won't be any time soon, Styer concedes. The timing of the NBC announcement was particularly bad. "If NBC had announced the cancellation two or three months ago, we would have had a better shot at getting pilots filmed here," he says. "But this comes at the very end of the season, and the pilots are already scheduled. We'll work at getting something in here as a mid-season replacement, but really, there aren't very many of those."

Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, executive producers of "Homicide," say they would like to produce another show in Baltimore, but it seems unlikely they could have anything in place for at least a year, even if a network gave approval. And in the harshly competitive world of television programming, many new shows vie each year for the relatively few open slots on a network's schedule.

There's no getting around the reality that the demise of "Homicide" is a blow to the establishment of a permanent filmmaking community in Maryland. "It leaves a huge gaping wound in the employment ranks of film and television production people, and it'll ripple through the entire community," says Jed Dietz, the organizer of this month's Maryland Film Festival and head of the Maryland Producers Club, a civic group that promotes filmmaking in Maryland.

The efforts of Dietz, Styer and others have resulted in ever more filmmaking ventures in Maryland. Each of the last two years, film and TV productions contributed as much as $77 million to the local economy, according to the Maryland Film Office, whose annual budget is $670,000. A steady stream of major feature films continues to shoot here, including, most recently, Levinson's "Liberty Heights" and "Runaway Bride," starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Styer, usually close-mouthed about projects, says he's in "deep discussions and negotiations" now for a major motion picture that would be shot entirely in the Baltimore area from August until mid-October.

Even with the regular film work done here, "Homicide" still represented 40 percent of the total film production in Maryland. That is the gaping wound Dietz described.

The immediate impact of the cancellation could be softened somewhat if details are worked out on an HBO miniseries based on the book, "The Corner," by David Simon and Ed Burns about a drug corner in West Baltimore. Simon, who also wrote the book upon which "Homicide" was based and was a producer on the show, would be an executive producer.

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