Maryland has a new go-to role on television — Washington
'House of Cards' is the latest in a string of political dramas filmed in the stat
By David Zurawik and Chris Kaltenbach
January 5, 2012
Cross-posted from The Baltimore Sun
For almost two decades, Baltimore was mainly seen by the TV industry as a place to make shows about cops and crime. But now, the city is looking more like the nation's capital to some of Hollywood's top producers.
On Thursday, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced that "House of Cards" — a Washington-set TV series starring Kevin Spacey — will be filmed in Baltimore this spring, making it the third political drama to be produced in Maryland in less than a year.
"This current run of going three for three with Washington political stuff is really something," said Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office. "And we're doing it in TV productions featuring Oscar and Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning producers, writers and directors."
Produced by director David Fincher, "Cards" will be the first original series from Netflix, one of Hollywood's distribution giants with 20 million subscribers. The remake of the acclaimed British series joins HBO's "VEEP" series, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and "Game Change" a made-for-TV movie starring Julianne Moore and Ed Harris. The two HBO productions are set to premiere this spring.
Since the start of production on NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Streets" in 1992 through the end of filming on HBO's "The Wire" in 2007, Baltimore has been home to TV series that came to typify what's been characterized as "gritty urban drama." And there certainly is no shortage of locations and neighborhoods that lend themselves to that depiction of the city.
But the current trio of TV productions have Baltimore serving as stand-in for Washington —with greater economic benefits for Maryland workers and small businesses.
And while the city has played that role before in several one-shot feature films such as "Enemy of the State," doing it in a continuing TV series is another matter altogether — providing employment and infusions of Hollywood money to the local economy for months and years, instead of weeks.
Producers and Hollywood executives say the attributes that make Baltimore most attractive as a stand-in for Washington are the architectural similarities, easier logistics and lower costs. And by basing your operation in Maryland, you can have Washington itself and its iconic sights, they say, in controlled one- and two-day bites without having to pay Washington prices.
"What happens is you end up shooting some establishing shots of Washington," said John Melfi, the executive producer of the Netflix series. "But you also need the way that Baltimore ties in so well with Washington in pieces, in terms of its architecture and its looks. The textures of Baltimore and Maryland will give us a lot of credibility."
But it took more than proximity, architectural synergy and lower costs, according to those involved in the negotiations. It took political muscle, hustle and money — things usually associated more closely with Washington than Baltimore.
Maryland's Film Office has been targeting Washington productions for years, Gerbes said. "Any time we would get wind of a D.C.-based show, we're right on the phone with them, saying, 'Have you ever considered Maryland?'" Gerbes said.
Maryland went head-to-head with Washington on the Netflix project, according to Leslie Green, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. Green confirmed that her office had been in negotiations with the producers to bring "House of Cards" to Washington.
But their effort failed because they could not offer the kind of incentives Maryland could, she said Thursday. The filmmakers will be shooting only seven to nine days in Washington.
"We did not get as many days as we had hoped for because of that incentive program. It's basically a money game," she said, explaining that her office has "not been able to get re-funded" this year at the $4 million level it previously enjoyed.
Incentives from the state played an important role in bringing all three productions to Maryland, according to Debbie Donaldson Dorsey, director of the Baltimore Film Office and secretary of the Maryland Film Industry Coalition.
"The film industry is returning to Baltimore thanks to the Maryland Film Production Employment Act," Dorsey said.
The film production act, which was passed in the last legislative session and signed into law by O'Malley in May, provides tax credits of 25 percent for film and 27 percent for TV series on certain in-state expenditures by production companies. Hollywood trade publications have pegged "House of Cards" as a $100 million production.
TV and film production in Maryland disappeared with the end of HBO's "The Wire," and many of the skilled production workers in the area had to go on location to other states to find work in recent years — until the arrival of "VEEP" and "Game Change," which not only put local actors and production workers back to work, but provided contracts for small area businesses that provided everything from scenery to set decorations and food to the visiting filmmakers.
"The production is estimated to have a $75 million economic impact and is projected to create over 2,000 jobs for local crew, actors and extras and support hundreds of Maryland businesses," O'Malley said Thursday.
One of those workers is Michael Davis, a member of Local 487 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The last two years, he's had to go to Michigan and Ohio for TV work. A married father of two teen daughters, Davis spent 20 weeks in Michigan working on Wes Craven's "Scream 4."
But this past year, he has worked as a construction coordinator for "VEEP." Members of the "VEEP" crew are likely to work on "House of Cards," which has already started preproduction, according to Melfi.
"What this means to guys like me is that we don't have to leave Maryland, don't have to leave home and be away from our families to find work," Davis said. "And that's great.
"It also means we'll be spending our money here instead of in another state," he added. "We spend a lot of money [making scenery] on fuel, lumber and equipment. And instead of spending all that money in Michigan or Ohio, now it's being spent here in Baltimore and Maryland."