Can Washington, DC Be More Than a Pretty Backdrop for Hollywood?

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WW84 filmed at L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. (Screenshot courtesy: WW84)

As someone who has grown up in DC, I know the city like the back of my hand. Watching various movies and TV shows that are supposedly based in DC, I’m able to pick out what is true DC and what is false. (I’m looking at you, Georgetown metro in No Way Out).

DC is undeniably a popular location in film and television. As the seat of the federal government, countless productions — especially those that center around politics — depict or take place in the capital city.

However, many of these projects film elsewhere. “House of Cards” is filmed in Baltimore. “West Wing” and “Scandal” were both primarily shot in California. And some films such as “Spiderman: Homecoming” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier” only travel to DC to capture “postcard” shots of the city (and Chris Evans has recently returned for his latest project).

Why is that? What are the effects of this discrepancy? And why are some trying to change it?

As it turns out, DC can be one of the tougher places to film — in part because the city itself falls under a tangle of jurisdictions. It’s often up to the location manager to solve these challenges and obtain permits from different offices.

“When we did Wonder Woman, we wanted Pennsylvania Avenue and we shut it down for the whole weekend,” renowned location manager Carol Flaisher said. “That entailed the Park Service, the Secret Service, the city, the FBI. Everybody needed to be notified and we needed permission from all of the entities because it was a large location and that particular location sits in the middle of a million jurisdictions.”

Until recently, there was no formal government program providing financial incentive support for productions that were filmed in D.C. Currently, 32 states have some form of media production incentive program legislation on the books. But in 2016, Mayor Muriel Bowser reactivated and refunded the DC Film, Television, and Entertainment Rebate Fund, which had been inactive since 2010. The goal of the program is to bring films to DC, encourage production and crews to hire District residents, and to support local businesses.

“Essentially, the program is designed to incentivize motion picture and media production in the District of Columbia as well as media industry infrastructure improvements,” said Herbert Niles, associate director of the Film Division at DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment (OCTFME). “In addition to the economic impact provided by this production and infrastructure activity, one of the major goals of the program is to encourage the hiring of District of Columbia residents on those creative economy jobs.”

In order to qualify, productions must spend at least $250,000 in the District. As Niles explained, production expenditures in Maryland or Virginia, or with vendors based that are not registered to do business in the District, would not qualify for DC Rebate Fund program rebates because the goal of the program is to support and incentivize production companies to use District of Columbia based business as vendors. This way, the economic impact of the program focuses directly on the DC economy.

The infrastructure incentive support portion of the DC Rebate Fund program covers the cost of relocation if a production company or post-production house wants to move their production operations into the District, or if a production business currently based in the District wants to upgrade or improve their media industry facility or equipment. However, the rebate only covers money spent on production activity filmed within the DC boundaries, with a higher rebate rate for hiring District residents

“They’re getting per diems, they’re buying a sandwich on the corner, etc.,” Niles said. “They are activating the economy while they’re here.”

Another important aspect of the program is that it encourages local productions and projects — and it’s seemed to work. Of the 56 projects that have been in the program since 2016, 25 projects have been from local production companies. Can DC be not just a location depicted in films, but a place with a thriving film economy and culture of its own?

“People often have the impression that on these [rebate] programs only support big projects from big studios from Los Angeles or New York or Atlanta,” Niles said. “However, one of the great things about the DC Rebate Fund program is that it also incentivizes and helps support the growth and long-term sustainability of DC-based production companies, by allowing them to get the incentives they need to establish themselves.”

Niles affirmed that the fund has supported many projects since Bowser reactivated the fund in 2016, noting that there were a number of projects that would not otherwise have come to town.

“Were it not for the program, a project like Wonder Woman 1984, which filmed in the District in 2018, would have filmed in London [using plate shots and CGI] instead of filming a portion of their film here in the DMV,” Niles said, “Because that film decided to come to and film in the District, because the DC Rebate Fund was available to them, a total of $9.2 million in qualified program production expenditures were spent in the District of Columbia during their 6-week stay here filming. That was local spending and production activity that otherwise would not have impacted the District of Columbia economy.”

Image released by Warner Bros

The program is also attractive to those involved with the local film production industry, who see it as contributing to the long-term viability of a homegrown DC film scene.

“I’m glad the city has the program and I would like to see the program expanded,” DC-based producer Jonathan Zurer said. “In the film industry, rebates have become a very important part of people deciding where and when to film. In order to keep productions motivated to come to Washington and to film for more than just a day or two, having a successful well funded and well-run rebate program is very important to us as local producers.”

Location manager Flaisher noted the success of the program.

“The city has worked so hard to encourage filmmakers to come and in fact they have,” Flaisher said. “The incentive program has been quite successful.”

That being said, both highlighted the lack of interest in filming in the District beyond monuments. In general, DC struggles to be seen as its own city, not just host to all things political. That lack of genuine cultural representation is only further illustrated by the media industry’s lack of interest in the District beyond monuments.

“Washington is unique in that most everyone who is coming to film are coming for the monuments: The Jefferson, the Lincoln, and the Washington Monuments; the Capitol; and the White House,” Flaisher said. “Those five icons are the reason people come here to film. Not everyone, but most everyone, because that gives their film or their story the production value they’re looking for.”

Zurer had similar sentiments.

“I get it. They’re filming their movie somewhere else and they come here and they have a limited amount of time or limited budget to spend and so they need to show that they were here,” he said. “The production value of filming a scene in front of the Lincoln Memorial is instant and obvious that you were here and were actually in DC and on location. If you filmed in Cleveland Park, no one outside of the DC area would know that was Cleveland Park.”

Uptown Theater, a Cleveland Park landmark. (Flickr | pingnews)

Although the rebate fund helps bring more projects to DC, it also helps to build up domestic (DC-based production) film productions. In this way, the program can encourage more well-rounded portrayals of the whole city.

“I would love to see a situation where people come to DC and film both and take advantage of the neighborhoods as the neighborhoods they’re supposed to be as opposed to coming to only film the iconic monuments and memorials,” Zurer said. “That being said, that’s what sells. I get why those are the places to shoot, and that’s the bread and butter of our business.”