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Northeast Ohio Angling For Piece Of Multibillion-Dollar Film Industry

Tri-C Television and Video Services
As part of a five-week crash course in film production, sound recordist Jonathan Andrews shows students at Cuyahoga Community College how to hold a mic boom.

Thyra Chaney loves movies. Like, really loves them.

“I love the dialogue. I love the production,” she says. “I love every single thing about it.”

Ask Chaney, 19, about her favorite films, and she’ll offer an appreciation of everything from “Animal House” to “Marie Antoinette” to the obscure German dramedy, “Wetlands,” which she describes with a grin as “very disgusting” but also “beautiful and clean.”

Chaney dreams of working in the movies, and in preparation has read over a dozen books on the subject of moviemaking. Thing is, she’s never actually set foot on a movie set, until now.

On a recent Sunday morning, Chaney is running down the halls of Cuyahoga Community College in Parma, where a short film is being shot as part of a class called the "Motion Picture Intensive." The five-week course, which took place at Cuyahoga Community College in Parma in January and early February, exposes students to the technical, though perhaps less glamorous, aspects of filmmaking, including lighting, camerawork, sound recording, and set design.

During a period when many states have scrapped their motion picture tax incentives, Ohio has been steadily upping its investment in the film industry here. Local film boosters are calling for the state to, once again, double the amount of film tax credits it gives out every year, and some local schools are taking steps to build up the area's film production workforce.

Filling The Talent Pool

Today, Chaney is in charge of managing props, shuttling various items back and forth to set. Working on a film set for the first time has been exhausting and exhilarating, she says. 

“Like running a marathon, and then, imagine winning an Oscar,” she said.

Credit Adrian Ma / ideastream
Thyra Chaney, 19, working on the set of a short film being shot at Cuyahoga Community College's Parma campus in February.

The goal, said the course’s lead instructor, James Madio, is not for students to master any one skill, but rather to give them enough experience in the peculiarities of film set work to land an entry-level production job.

Madio points out, the cost is considerably less than one would pay to attend a brand-name film school such as New York University (where tuition can run as much as $40,000 per semester).

Beyond helping students get a foothold on the show biz ladder, the course is also aimed at addressing a weak spot in Northeast Ohio’s production ecosystem—the relatively shallow pool of seasoned production talent.

“There’s a certain minimum standard of training and skill level that people need in order to do their job, and most of those people don’t live in Cleveland,” said David Wain, a writer/director who is based in Los Angeles, but originally from Shaker Heights. “Why would they, because there’s not enough work for them to be there year-round.”

Producers often prefer to hire locals, Wain said, because it’s cheaper than flying a crew out and putting them up in hotels. If Cleveland is going to grow as a production destination, he said, the crew base needs to grow with it.

Filmmaking As Manufacturing

One person looking to help fill that talent pool is Frederic Lahey, who was hired as Director of Cleveland State University's School of Film and Media Arts last July. Recently, the school began construction on what will be its future campus, located in a 36,000 square-foot space on the top floor of the Idea Center in downtown Cleveland.

The state last year approved a $7.5 million grant to help launch the school, which Lahey said will be tricked-out with high-end production facilities including multiple sound stages, editing suites, and even a motion-capture area.

Although Ohio already gives TV and film productions a 30 percent tax credit for TV and film productions that spend more than $300,000 shooting here, he says having a film school gives producers another reason to consider shooting here.

“We will create the workforce that will then supply these film shoots and TV shows with their workers,” he said.

Credit FX Networks Research

It is a boom-time for the TV and film industry, with networks, studios, streaming services, and even technology companies like Apple and Facebook, investing billions in new content, Lahey said. As such, he added, the time is ripe for to invest in an industry that would bring diversity to the regional economy.

“Creative content is what there is a market for,” Lahey said. “It’s not the same as building cars, but you don’t need smelters for creative content.”

Indeed, with each passing season, industry watchers have repeatedly declared that the era of “peak TV” has arrived, only to see that peak surpassed a few months later. A recent report by FX Networks Research estimates that 487 original scripted TV series aired in the U.S. in 2017—more than double the number that aired in 2010.

Ivan Schwarz, President and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission (CGFC), agrees that the trend presents an opportunity to expand beyond Northeast Ohio's more well-known industries such as healthcare and manufacturing.

“We can be a creative media center,” he said, “because at the end of the day, making movies is straight up manufacturing.”

The Film Incentive Arms Race

Despite the optimism from local film boosters, it’s not clear how much of the content boom will land in Northeast Ohio. According to the GCFC, only eight productions shot in the region 2017. That tally includes not only a feature film starring Matthew McConaughey,  two commercials, and an episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

Credit Tri-C Television and Video Services

Moreover, the number of productions last year was considerably lower than it was in 2016 (17 productions) and 2015 (32 productions), according to the GCFC.

So what gives?

“We’re held hostage by the low incentive,” said Schwarz, who has been lobbying state lawmakers to raise the annual cap for film incentives from the current $40 million dollars per year to $100 million.

If Schwarz gets his wish, it would follow a trend of the state gradually increasing its bet on the the future of film in the state. When the incentive was first established in 2009, the annual cap was $10 million. Later it was doubled to $20 million. In 2016, it was doubled again to its current level.

But motion picture tax credits, once available in nearly every state, have been losing some of their Hollywood luster, according to a recent report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Since 2010, at least 13 states have scrapped their film incentives, deciding they're just not worth taxpayer money.

But Schwarz insists that Ohio’s film incentive has paid off, not only in terms of tax revenue spent by the productions who come here, but also for the businesses—such as hotels, drycleaners, and caterers—that serve the crews. As evidence, he cites a study, comissioned by the GCFC, that reports between 2011 and 2015, every dollar spent on film tax credits was offset by $2 in tax revenue.

Additionally, Schwarz argues that there is more interest in filming in Ohio than the $40 million cap can accommodate. For example, he said, when the Ohio Development Services Agency began considering applications for the film incentive program on July 1 last year, the cap was reached in one week.

“I know that if we increase this incentive to $100 million dollars, we’ll be as busy or busier than several of these other states," he said.

Build It And They Will Come?

Of course, with 30 other states offering motion picture tax incentives, Ohio can't rely on tax breaks alone to attract production business.

Greater Cleveland, for its part, has qualities that producers often look for when choosing a location to shoot.

“The city offers a great variety of looks,” said Anthony Russo, a filmmaker and Cleveland native. “It has your classic American look, the lakefront, you can get out into the country pretty easily.”

Credit Adrian Ma / ideastream

Depending on the scene you’re shooting, even the city’s low population density can be a plus: “When you have a movie, you need empty space, and there’s space to takeover in Cleveland which is very useful from a production standpoint," Russo added.

But what the region lacks, said Russo, are large sound stages where productions can shoot year-round. Schwarz said he has been talking with private developers about the possibility of building a studio complex near downtown.

Russo, who, along with his brother Joe, shot much of Captain America: The Winter Soldier in Cleveland in 2013, said he likes the idea. Although they shot their last few movies in Atlanta, he said he’d gladly move production up north if the infrastructure were here.

“We like to joke that we’re a bunch of carnies," Russo said. “We’re a highly mobile industry.”

However, the transient nature of the movie business could be a challenge for those, like Schwarz, who are trying to build the local production scene.

“I want to see grads from Cleveland State, Tri-C, Lakeland Community College, all having opportunity to work on those projects and not leave if they don’t have to," he said.

But if there is not enough work here, budding producers like Thyra Chaney may be forced to leave. In fact, when asked what she planned to do with her newfound production skills, Chaney said she may pursue a gig she heard about through one of her instructors, a production assistant job on a film shoot in a city already bursting with media.

“I'm thinking of doing that, just dropping everything and going to New York,” she said, “because that’s the nature of this industry. You hear about a job, you go and do it.”

Adrian Ma is a business reporter and recovering law clerk for ideastream in Cleveland. Since making the switch from law to journalism, he's reported on how New York's helicopter tour industry is driving residents nuts, why competition is heating up among Ohio realtors, and the controlled-chaos of economist speed-dating. Previously, he was a producer at WNYC News. His work has also aired on NPR's Planet Money, and Marketplace. In 2017, the Association of Independents in Radio designated him a New Voices Scholar, an award recognizing new talent in public media. Some years ago, he worked in a ramen shop.