Q&A: Rewriting role of Va.’s film industry

ritainthemiddleLast year, HBO’s “John Adams,” co-produced by Tom Hanks, brought a $200 million budget to the Capital Region. The miniseries, which won 13 Emmys and four Golden Globes, raised the state’s profile as a location of choice. Virginia Film Commissioner Rita McClenny is trying to keep the momentum going. But McClenny says that without government funding for attraction programs, Virginia is not competitive enough with other states that do have lucrative incentive programs.

The Virginia Film Office
and the industry scored a success this past session when the legislature approved a bill to generate money for the state’s motion picture fund by charging a tax on digital movies rented in hotels.

The film office is a component of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, which McClenny joined in 1991. She recently received the first Virgo Award for Tourism Advocacy from the Virginia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau for her role in growing the state’s film and tourism industries.

BizSense caught up with McClenny to talk about the potential of the film industry, the impact a possible network TV series could have on Richmond and what high-profile feature film could be next on the slate. (Spoiler alert: Spielberg is at the helm.)

Richmond BizSense: How has the lack of a well-funded film fund affected the state industry?

Rita McClenny: Since the mid-’90s, we’ve seen a contraction in our market share in terms of the kind of projects we could recruit to Virginia. We have a motion picture fund, which we are grateful for, but it doesn’t hold up the same kind of juice that other states are putting on the table. If I could have anything I wanted, I would say $30 million would get us all the work I truly feel like Virginia is well suited for.

This is very much a business decision when a production looks at where they are going to on location. We have to be able to satisfy a business solution as well as the creative solution. We do very well at the creative solution but not as well right now with the business solution.

RBS: How were motion picture funds most recently used?

McClenny: In 2008, they were used for “Border Town.” The most recent was “The Body Politic,”  which received $125,000.

RBS: If “The Body Politic” pilot is picked up by the network and they decide to shoot the series here, what would the economic impact be?

McClenny: It would add over $30 million, including indirect spending. That is over 12 episodes. A typical crew for a pilot, you have 200 people on set, not counting acting talent. We haven’t seen the budget yet, but we based it on an average series production budget of $2 million an episode.

RBS: What should the next governor do to grow the state’s film industry?

McClenny: I hope the next governor will see that the film industry is economic development. It creates jobs and it creates business for existing companies in Virginia in every spectrum, from the cleaners to the limo companies to the florists to the lumber companies to people who have earth-moving equipment for building sets.

RBS: How is the state’s film industry connected to the tourism industry?

McClenny: We look at filmmakers as a super tourist. They fly, drive or train in. They stay in hotels, rent cars, eat out a lot. Usually two of their three meals are in a restaurant every day.

A popular film like “John Adams” can increase awareness of historic assets like Williamsburg. Or like “Dirty Dancing” [filmed near Roanoke] – people want to go there to sleep in Patrick Swayze’s bed still.

RBS: How has the success of “John Adams” elevated Richmond’s profile as an attractive location to film a movie or TV series?

McClenny: From the beginning, “John Adams” got Virginia a lot of attention from other states. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were more than curious as to what was going on down south, because the producers and HBO were very focused on making it happen here even though [other states] were throwing money and buildings and a lot of tax credits to them to provide the carrot.

RBS: What has been the impact since its release?

McClenny: When people found out it was filmed here, they are impressed. The cool part is we were able to keep and maintain the backlot in Hanover County that was built for the series. We use that as marketing tool to recruit other projects.

It has been used by National Geographic, Discovery and a lot of independent productions. For the locally produced “Border Town,” it played a Mexican village.

RBS: What projects are on your slate for the coming year?

McClenny: The passion project of ours right now is “Lincoln,” based on the book “Team of Rivals,” which Steven Spielberg is going to direct and produce. That’s next on the horizon. Normally I wouldn’t mention a project we are recruiting, but it has been in the media for a while. Liam Nielson is Lincoln.

They are looking at Massachusetts and us. We have competition, but we are hoping that they want to be here. It’s scheduled to start production in late 2009.

Al Harris is a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to [email protected]

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