The Baltimore-born filmmaker laments Maryland's loss of productions and calls for the state to get back into the big-time funding game

Q&A -- Barry Levinson

June 10, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

f you want to know how far today's producers will go for a financial break, consider this: The current Kevin Costner thriller Mr. Brooks, a story set in Portland, Ore., was shot in and around Shreveport, La.

"It used to be that movies went on location to make use of that location," Mr. Brooks' cinematographer, John Lindley, told American Cinematographer magazine, "but today the choice of location is more about tax incentives."

Maryland's failure to stay competitive with other states in providing incentive plans for filmmakers has been put into stunning relief by Louisiana's recent success.

After more than a dozen years of hard work and persuasion on the part of the Maryland and Baltimore City film offices, Maryland lost a $150 million adaptation of F. Scott Fitzerald's short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" to Louisiana's unlimited tax credits, even though the story and the original script were set in Baltimore. (It was rewritten for New Orleans.)

Of course, Hairspray is set in Baltimore, too. But the movie's producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, brought the Broadway musical of John Waters' 1988 Baltimore fable to the big screen in Toronto (where they had helped produce Chicago).

Three years ago, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. spearheaded the creation of Maryland's wage-rebate program, repaying movie companies for a portion of production wages up to $2 million per film. The impetus was Disney moving the service drama Annapolis from Maryland's capital city to Pennsylvania to take advantage of the Keystone State's tax credits.

But the funding for Maryland's program has accordioned from $4 million to $6.875 million and now back to $4 million (for the fiscal year starting July 1).

And while Maryland has been running in place or going backward, a number of states have courted filmmakers aggressively. That includes Connecticut, where Baltimore favorite son Barry Levinson (Diner, The Natural) shot much of his new film, What Just Happened, about a Hollywood producer played by Robert De Niro.

Levinson says he couldn't make the figures from Maryland's program work for his previous film, the political comedy-drama Man of the Year.

He shot most of it in Ontario, Canada, even though it took place partly in Maryland.

While enmeshed in post-production on What Just Happened, Levinson gave an hour to The Sun to plead the case for putting Maryland back into big-time film and TV production. How much of What Just Happened did you shoot in Connecticut, and why?

We do all the exteriors in L.A.; we do all the interiors in Connecticut. We could have done all of them in Maryland. But the economics of moviemaking in Maryland have fallen off the charts at this point in time. Why is that?

I think Maryland has looked at it incorrectly. The state says, "Here's this little fund we have," and then puts a cap on how much money you can get out of that. You shouldn't be tied to figures, and there shouldn't be any cap. Why limit it to $2 million if you can put in $4 million and get $20 million back? You ought to keep going! All you're doing is bringing money in. You're only putting money out against how much money's coming in. It's not like the state is giving its money away, and it's not like gambling - it's not saying "We'll put up 2 million, and maybe we'll get lucky and get something for our money." Enormous money comes into the territory because of that 2 million.

When we did Homicide the number that I had always heard was that in 7 years it generated $140 million for the local economy. David Simon is still in Baltimore with The Wire. But instead of one show and something else there is no reason there couldn't be constant production going on. These programs have had some success with big-budgeted movies, like Benjamin Button. But aren't they particularly seductive for the more modestly budgeted pictures that actually fill more screens than people think? Four out of five best picture nominees at the Academy Awards a few years back had budgets ranging from roughly $5 million to $15 million.

There's been a massive impact in Connecticut of movies made in the $20 million range coming into the state to save, say, $3 million a picture.

But whether it's a big-budget or low-budget movie, it is all about whether a state wants to bring in movie dollars, which are important dollars, because they spread out. They deal with hotels, food, transportation, wardrobe, jewelry, a number of supplies. All those things we use in a movie have to be bought and purchased. When you bring the circus to town, it stimulates the economy in a number of ways, not just with fuel consumption. I'm not exactly sure why there should be a debate.

Maryland still has a very strong crew base for moviemaking; you could come into Maryland and pick up all of the people you need and not have to bring them in from New York or California. That's an additional savings for filmmakers.

The question is, how long can that survive? It's been underutilized in recent years.

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