Selling Hollywood On Ohio

CLEVELAND - How do you persuade Hollywood executives, who think of the Midwest as having little more than factories and farms, to come to Ohio to make movies?

That's the challenge for Chris Carmody, who heads the Greater Cleveland Media Development Corp. -- better known as the Cleveland Film Commission.

Carmody admits it's a tough sell. A complicated permit system at City Hall hampers efforts, as does the fact that Toronto -- only five hours north of Cleveland -- offers competitive tax rebates and a low exchange rate that cuts cost.

But perhaps most difficult is the fact that Cleveland doesn't register on most studios' radar screens.

"In L.A., there's a sense that the Midwest, except for Chicago, is a factory surrounded by cornfields," he said. "The question we hear most often is: Is there a body of water near Cleveland?"

Apparently the commission is doing well educating Californians about the location of Lake Erie. Since the commission was founded in 1998, direct expenditures by media production companies have grown from $1.74 million in 1998 to $10 million in 2001.

Last year was a big year, with local shoots of Warner Bros.' "Welcome to Collinwood," Fox Searchlight's "The Antwone Fisher Story" and Good Machine's "American Splendor," based on Cleveland writer Harvey Pekar's comic books.

This year, films shot in the area include part of Paramount's "Against the Ropes," starring Meg Ryan, and Tag Entertainment's "Miracle Dogs." With commercials and TV productions added in, 45 projects were shot in the area.

The commission operates on an annual budget $450,000, with the city of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County each contributing about a quarter of the money, the state about an eighth and the remainder from the private sector and philanthropies such as the Gund, Cleveland and Lennon foundations.

Film production means money and jobs for the cities where they're shot. According to the film commission, 75 to 100 local crew members are hired for each film in Cleveland.

The rest of the money goes to expenses like hotels, rental cars, equipment and catering. All taxable goods, Carmody points out. He says a media industry in Cleveland also would provide something harder to quantify. "It would make Cleveland a hip place to live," he said.

Carmody is a Cleveland native who attended St. Ignatius High School and Oberlin College. He tells The Plain Dealer he considered moving to Los Angeles to work but decided to stay, working on former Mayor Mike White's campaign and later serving as White's special assistant for education.

Although Carmody is used to City Hall, it's one of his biggest obstacles in attracting films to Cleveland.

"City Hall has invented more ways to say 'no' in the last 20 years," said City Councilman Joe Cimperman. "And Chris is about saying 'yes,' how do we do it, how do we get there."

Carmody estimates the commission staff spends half its time getting permits and taking care of other city logistics.

"Welcome to Collinwood," filmed earlier this year, had 62 locations. Each location required between two and seven separate permits, for everything from street obstruction to parking vehicles.

"Our tactic has been to throw our bodies in between film companies and the municipal entities responsible for permitting," Carmody said. "That's time that we could be spending marketing the city."

A spokesman for Mayor Jane Campbell said she is working to streamline the permit process.

Carmody's goal is to eventually make Cleveland as big a film center as Wilmington, N.C., or Austin, Texas. Each of those cities attract about $75 million a year in direct expenditures from filmed entertainment.

To grow, though, Cleveland needs more skilled crew members. The commission is working with Cuyahoga Community College and the Cleveland Institute of Art to increase education in filmmaking.

"If Cleveland can give young people training in new media, then the idea is to cultivate them and make sure they're connected with jobs," Carmody said. "It's something that we believe Cleveland can be a significant player in -- if we move now."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)