Mayor’s lens focuses on plan to produce city film scenes

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 17

Imagine Tom Cruise escaping from a band of terrorists trying to take over the LaSalle Apartments. Jim Carrey mugging for the camera while riding the suspended bicycle at COSI. Kate Winslet acting droll in a 19th-century period piece set in the Old West End.

Can you picture it? Mayor Carty Finkbeiner can. He wants to make Toledo the Hollywood of the Midwest.

The mayor is appealing to the Ohio Film Commission – the agency responsible for trying to get filmmakers to shoot scenes in the state – to consider pushing Toledo as a director’s haven.

“We’ve got water, we’ve got a skyline, we’ve got old buildings. I want to be on the list of cities filmmakers look at when they think where they want to film their movies,” the mayor said.

The appeal of having movies made here isn’t artistic; it’s purely financial. When a production studio sets up shop in a town, it pumps millions into the local economy, hires dozens of locals as extras and crew, and has the potential to increase tourism.

State officials say it’s a great idea.

“It’s on my priority list to come up there and spend some time in [Toledo],” said Steve Cover, the commission’s assistant manager.

The example all Ohio film boosters turn to is The Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 prison tale adapted from a Stephen King short story. The film, which starred Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. But, more importantly for Ohioans, it was filmed almost entirely in Mans field, at the old state prison there. The filming pumped $12 million over 12 weeks into the city’s economy, said Amy Weirick, a manager at the commission.

Other big-name films, like Air Force One (1997), Rain Man (1988), and The Deer Hunter (1978), have been filmed in Ohio as well.

But for all of the state’s successes, very little of it has reached Toledo. Ms. Weirick has a long list of dozens of films made in Ohio over the last 20 years, but none were made in Toledo or north west Ohio.

Ken Dobson, the city’s commissioner for economic development, said he hopes that can change. “Economic development means selling your city to the world, and film is the most cost-effective method of doing that,” Mr. Dobson said. “It just takes one `Sleepless in Seattle.’ ”

Ms. Weirick said she was optimistic about Toledo’s chances of landing films because it has a wide range of possible locations. Old buildings downtown could work for an early 20th-century period piece; COSI and the Toledo Zoo would be nice backgrounds for a family film; city neighborhoods, particularly the Old West End, work well for smaller pictures.

“You’ve got the lake, the river, neighborhoods, the mosque [the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in Perryburg Township] – you could almost get any look you want in Toledo,” she said.

There are plenty stories of cities or states boosted by favorable film footage. Iowa has made millions off Field of Dreams, whose namesake baseball field still stands and has drawn nearly a million tourists, and The Bridges of Madison County.

“You can pay $500 and get married on the bridge where Clint [Eastwood] met Meryl Streep,” said Janet Lockwood, who heads the Michigan Film Office. “Isn’t that a hoot?”

Even though Cleveland has always gotten a hearty part of Ohio’s film business, it, too, is trying harder to attract filmmakers. Earlier this month, a group of film buffs and economic-development types opened Cleveland Media, a nonprofit firm dedicated to bringing films to Cuyahoga County.

Chris Carmody, the group’s director, is pinning his hopes on the lower costs the Midwest can provide a film crew.

“The largest studios are not all that cost-conscious, but all independent producers are very cost-conscious,” he said.

It doesn’t take a blockbuster of Arnold Schwarzenegger proportions to help an economy. The Ohio Film Commission spends the bulk of its efforts chasing small independent films and even 30-second commercials. Levi Strauss recent ly filmed a jeans ad in Ohio, Ms. Weirick said.

An average major motion picture – Ohio usually gets four or five a year – spends $350,000 a week locally and hires about 100 Ohioans to be part of the movie’s crew. In 1996, filmmakers spent $11.2 million in Ohio and created 3,000 temporary jobs, the commission said.

The cooperation of local officials, such as Mr. Finkbeiner is promising, and is key to selling a site, Ms. Weirick said.

The things filmmakers need to do – blow up skyscrapers, have machine-gun shootouts on speedboats – are often things people get arrested for in real life, and getting a city to sign off on mass destruction is paramount in choosing a site.

For the filming of Air Force One, for example, the director blew up a few helicopters over Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra that played a Russian mansion in the film.

“The mayor’s promise is a big drawing card,” she said. “It’s very competitive to bring these movies in, and that willingness to work with producers can help a lot.”

And the mayor might be particularly cooperative if some brash young moviemaker thought it might be necessary to blow up some aging industrial hulk – like, say, the old Autolite plant – to bring a film to a climax.

“That’s been in the back of my mind,” Mr. Finkbeiner admitted.

Paul Piper, who heads Detroit’s film-attraction efforts and whose position was created four years ago by Mayor Dennis Archer, said films are one of the best ways to make a city attractive.

“Mayor Archer knew this was an opportunity to make Detroit shine,” he said. To encourage auteurs, Detroit doesn’t charge permit fees for filmmakers and helps them out as much as it can.

A few weeks ago, shooting wrapped on Out of Sight, a George Clooney/Jennifer Lopez vehicle that brought $2.4 million into De troit in only 3GF1*2weeks of shooting.

A large part of selling a city to filmmakers is picking through the various stereotypes they might bring to the table. For Toledo, that could be quite a battle.

Ms. Lockwood, who admits she hasn’t been in Toledo for years, could only muster up images of industrial blight (“although that can be a good sell”) when thinking about the Glass City.

“I think of neighborhoods gone halfway to pot,” she said. “You have an image – was there a John Denver song?”