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Blown Away

Is Baltimore in The Middle of a Film Explosion or Are Maryland's Tax Incentives Keeping Productions Away?

Justin Berkenheimer
Mark Kilbane in costume
Filmmaker Charlie Anderson
Jack Gerbes, Head of the Maryland Film Office
DECOMPOSING A SHOT: (from left) director Chris Lamartina and actors Jimmy George and Mark Kilbane on the set of Grave Mistakes.

By Mark J. Kilbane | Posted 4/30/2008

My pant legs flap as the bomb goes off behind me. Of course, I knew it would happen. This is a dodgy neighborhood--Arabic graffiti on the walls, trash blowing on the streets, smoky haze. And I'd just seen the faceless men of the Special Air Service--arguably the finest military regiment in the world--dance across the street with neat precision, sharp angles of weapons silhouetted against morning glare from the damp street. People jump as a soul-rattling concussive force shakes the street. A helicopter whirls overhead as I spin to see a black cauldron of smoke and an enormous fireball mushrooming skyward. >>

I am a Greater Manchester police officer. Sweat rolls down my forehead--it's morning, yet it's already in the 90s. It doesn't help that I'm wearing a flak vest, day-glow yellow jacket, and a heavy utility belt. I remember whom I am after the blast and begin barking commands into my radio and putting up my arms to control a crowd of onlookers--a motley mix of men and women, young and old, South Asian, white, and black, clad in soccer jerseys, tank tops, fall sweaters, pajamas, bathrobes--who scream and point from behind a hastily erected police barricade. Photographers snap away and journalists mouth into microphones.

"Cut!" barks an assistant director through a megaphone. The explosion was genuine, but the action is not. Ridley Scott is directing the Warner Bros. movie Body of Lies, starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, on East Eager Street in Baltimore last September. We rush to the side and clear the streets to let in the real emergency personnel.

I look around and the extras are buzzing about the explosion--many with trembling hands. As a former artillery captain, I've heard a few big bangs in my day, so I'm more interested in getting to the lemonade before the line stacks up. Scott walks past in a pristine white baseball cap and heads toward the explosion's aftermath. Guess that's a wrap for this scene; it's not like they can do it over. I peel open my chartreuse jacket and see a man in a Hawaiian shirt with soot all over his face, one of the explosion victims.

"Hey, buddy, you can get cleaned up over there," I say.

"What?" he says, cupping his ear. "Those jackets are kinda loud."

Just another day in the life of an aspiring actor. I've been performing in some capacity all of my life, from leads in high-school theatrical productions to area opera companies, but always on the side. Just for fun, two years ago, I did my first Hollywood production as a background actor in Rocky Balboa in Philly. After a day on set in a scene with Sylvester Stallone, I was hooked. To brush up my acting chops, I attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan on weekends and also studied under renowned acting guru Terry Schreiber, who taught Edward Norton. I found film work right away--in 2007 I appeared in 13 productions, from local independent films to bit parts in major features, mostly in Baltimore and Washington.

In fact, there's been so much film work in town that I wonder, as I glug down my third straight glass of lemonade, if the explosion we've witnessed is an obvious metaphor for what's happening in Baltimore filmmaking. Across town another major feature is filming, Step Up 2: The Streets. Many actors I meet on this set have also worked that project. And a romantic comedy, He's Just Not That Into You--with Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, and Drew Barrymore--spent a few days here. Baltimore's homegrown independent filmmaking community also appears to be on fire, with some projects attracting Hollywood actors.

I finish my lemonade and resolve to find out what's going on with filmmaking in Baltimore. From September 2007 to January 2008, I talked to local filmmakers, casting directors, and actors, as well as those in government responsible for promoting and attracting feature films to Baltimore and Maryland. I discover that there is a technology-driven blast in independent filmmaking nationwide. I also discover that states attempt to lure big-money features to shoot within their borders by offering tax breaks and other incentives to production companies. And I discover that unless Maryland improves its incentives for film production, the recent explosion may be a final flash in the pan, and Baltimore's deep bench of professional crewpeople, not to mention actors like me, may be out of luck.

Big films are big business--the average cost of producing a major Hollywood film hit nearly $107 million in 2007. When productions come into a state to film, they spend money. This shoots cash into filming locations for local actors and crew, as well as ancillary industries: gas stations, lumber companies, caterers, hoteliers, city workers, police and fire departments, even 7-Elevens. Body of Lies shot a scene that featured helicopters and a rented Amtrak train, which had to be backed up for each take so it could ride past in the background.

The exact amount of revenues injected locally is difficult to measure accurately, and depends on the size and type of production. Elizabeth Kaltman, spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America, says in an e-mail from Los Angeles that "on-location production creates jobs and generates tax revenues contributing an estimated $200,000 a day into the coffers of the localities where they film."

Last October, I called Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office, and asked him what his office does to bring big movies into Baltimore. "We're here to promote the state, not just the city of Baltimore," Gerbes says. He is the face of Maryland filmmaking to Hollywood, and can often be found working the room at the Sundance Film Festival clad in his usual ball cap and jeans. He's been at the Maryland Film Office since 1991, and director since 2002. His job is to sell Maryland as a location to producers and directors.

"We do that by being proactive," he says. "By using our contacts in the industry, and then we have to find the appropriate locations to convince the producer, the production designer, the director, that Maryland has the right look."

Gerbes tells me to make sure to speak to his Baltimore City counterpart, who he says was instrumental in bringing Body of Lies to town. So the following week I called Debbie Donaldson Dorsey, director of the Baltimore Film Office, a division of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. "I would say we had a really nice spring and summer," she says. "We had The Wire shooting, we had a feature, Step Up 2, we had a couple of days with Body of Lies--it's been busy."

To me, so busy with film projects myself, local filmmaking also appears to be thriving. So I was surprised when Gerbes told me the opposite. "We've had a great fall and we're very fortunate, but production has been slowing down," he says, citing some numbers. "This past fiscal year [2007] Maryland had $70 million in film-generated revenue, and the year before [it was] $158 million.

"Unfortunately, now it's a battle of the bottom line," Gerbes says. "It's all about incentives."

These incentives can be transferable or refundable tax credits, waivers of sales or hotel occupancy taxes, and production loans. And the incentives game is a recent phenomenon--in 2004 only nine states offered tax rebates to visiting film productions, some with clever names such as Oklahoma's "Compete With Canada Film Act," or Minnesota's "Snowbate," which capitalized on Fargo's success. But now, "all but five states provide some type of production incentive," according to a 2007 production incentives guide published by Axium International, an entertainment industry services company (which went belly-up in scandal in January).

Maryland offers a cash rebate to production companies on 25 percent of costs directly used for film production spent in the state. They submit claims to the Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED), which decides whether or not to give them the money in the form of a grant based "upon merit and economic benefit to the state," according to the Maryland Film Office web site. Money for the rebates must be appropriated yearly. This results in an annual budget battle to determine how much funding will be available for the rebate program, which can change from year to year.

Maryland's incentives program isn't cutting it. Other states have stronger financial incentives, and Maryland is losing big films as a result. "We have $4 million for the whole year to give out," Gerbes says. "To show you what we're up against, Pennsylvania just passed legislation where they have $80 million to give out. Connecticut went from pre-incentive numbers, I think, they had $700,000 in one year. They got incentives, and the following year $52 million was spent in the state."

"Maryland may be a great place to film movies, and it is," says Maryland Del. Brian McHale (D-46th District), who sits on the House Economic Matters Committee, through which the state's rebate program took effect last July. "But if I can go to another location which is just as wonderful and can get a tax incentive, where would I go?"

Charlie Anderson, 24, is the first of a crop of young Baltimore filmmakers I talk to. I invite him down to the Body of Lies set on Sept. 7, 2007, where he snaps pictures with his camera phone. Extras are drawn and quartered if they produce a camera on set, but Anderson is safe snapping away. He stands in the heat, 6-foot-3, brandishing the de rigueur director's baseball cap with looks that could put him easily on the other side of the camera. Last holiday season Anderson's StrataTek Studios produced a corny music video for local singer/songwriter Brandon Walker about the plight of Jews on Christmas Day called "Chinese Food on Christmas" that went viral and had 1.3 million YouTube views. The video was directed by StrataTek Studio's co-owner Justin Beckenheimer, a senior at Towson University and currently a Top 10 finalist in the nationwide mtvU's 2008 Movie Awards Best Filmmaker on Campus competition.

Anderson in turn invited me and the rest of the cast and crew of his short film "Seraph" down to the Cinema Lounge night at Gardel's Supper Club on Front Street late last September. The short was selected to be screened as one of the 2007 entries for the nationwide 48-Hour Film Project contest. "I've been in the Baltimore film scene for about two years now," Anderson says during a break in the screenings in a roomy stairwell. "But from what I've seen in the last six months things are just exploding. There are many factors--Baltimore has a lot of local talent and also, because of technology, more and more films are coming into and being developed in Baltimore."

I also got a chance to speak to actor Johnny Alonso. He was a family owner of Gardel's and established the Cinema Lounge before the restaurant shuttered its doors last November. I first met Alonso there at a screening of Anderson's short film "AWAKE" late in June 2007. I walked into a private room with leather chairs and saw Alonso--wiry and snappily attired, telling war stories to a group of film nuts. "Hey, you guys wanna meet Robert Duvall sometime?" he asks. Their eyes light up. "Yeah, Uncle Bobby comes here. Let's do a shot--who wants a shot of Jack?"

Alonso is well known in Baltimore filmmaking, having spent parts of five seasons on the WB/CW shows Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill. Currently, he's a host for a program called NASA 360, which keeps him based in Los Angeles.

Alonso leads me out into Gardel's courtyard during the intermission of the film screenings. The night is muggy warm with leftover summer. You can separate the filmmakers and crew milling around from the actors a quarter mile away. Actors and casting directors are polished; the crew members are punctured, inked, and adorned with clothes scrounged from a 1973 Goodwill trash bin. I've seen their type on the set of Body of Lies--hulking hirsute Huns, one in white-guy dreads wearing a T-shirt reading rehab is for quitters.

Alonso performs in Baltimore films, so I ask him his impression of the scene. "Two years ago people were talking about it and now people are doing it," he says. "The Film Commission, with Jack and everybody, they have promoted Baltimore from New York to California, and they said, `Do your movies here.' We've got the beaches, we've got the snow, we've got the city, we've got the country. Little America."

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-3rd District) had the same thought when I wrote to him. "Maryland is America in miniature," Sarbanes tells me in an e-mail reply. "It has a rich, diverse history, beautiful landscapes . . . and a very positive economic situation, all of which should be a draw for any feature film, television, video, or production company."

Dorsey agrees. "Baltimore's always been a place where people want to make movies," she says. "They're doing it instead of New York or Chicago because it's easier. And it has a great look. We have the experienced crew, film offices, and city services who've done this over and over again, so they know what it's about."

In September 2007, I'm in a house in White Marsh filming the lead role for a segment that will be part of an anthology horror film called Grave Mistakes. The house belongs to actor Mary Jane Oelke, an electric violinist and puppet master. The place is littered with surreal marionettes--magnificent metal horse heads, anthropomorphic life-sized creatures. Throughout the evening's shooting, I keep getting unwanted adrenaline spikes from man-sized puppets caught in my peripheral vision in the shadows. My scene partner is Leanna Chamish--experienced and professional--looking dynamite in a suit. For my character I've got a 10-o'clock shadow and am all scumbaggy.

Chris LaMartina, 23, directs. LaMartina is on fire, named City Paper's Best Filmmaker in 2006. His latest, Book of Lore, debuted at the Charles Theatre last October. I watch him work all day--practiced hands flipping switches, swapping lenses. He moves smoothly from shot to shot without the benefit of notes, simultaneously directing and filming, polite to the actors. OK, I think. The kid is good.

After rinsing fake blood from my mouth, I ride home with LaMartina after the shoot. On the way we listen to people's Halloween ghost stories he's recorded from an on-air call-in show. I told him how much film work I was getting and asked him if he thought there was a film boom in Baltimore.

"I'm going to be really honest with you, but I don't think Baltimore right now is really any different from any other city," he says. LaMartina has hippish sideburns, dorkish Buddy Holly glasses, and fires off responses with hyperarticulate speed. "I think the reason you see the emergence of filmmakers and writers and actors is because of the technologies that are emerging. With DV--digital video--we have the chance for more diverse story lines to be told.

"The fact that anyone can go out there and get a camera and editing system for like a couple thousand bucks leads the way into getting more exciting and interesting stories for the next--well, for the rest of time."

Digital video's high quality and low cost now make it possible for a generation of independent filmmakers to produce high-quality films for a fraction of what it would cost if they had to buy film and rent editing time. Alonso touched on this development, too. "You can't just put out schlock films anymore," he says. "No one wants that. I can make a movie on my iPod. You have things like YouTube. You have people with camera phones--iPhones. Brilliant quality."

Charlie Anderson agrees. "Digital is coming close--if not matching--film," he says. "With modern technology you can get the same look, if not better look, than most films."

Every director I interview hammers the same topic--the technology-driven explosion of filmmaking. I go into more depth with local filmmaker Erik Kristopher Myers. He's a fireplug of intensity, sandy blond, reverse ball cap-brandishing, and Type A-driven. Just 32, Myers is gearing up for Penny Dreadful, his first major feature, which lenses this fall. He's a Towson University grad and an award-winning documentarian, and is completing the final cut of a feature-length documentary titled Film One. Both Wes Craven and Paul Schrader have read and complimented his material. Myers is shooting for the moon with Penny Dreadful, which he says will be one of the first feature-length films shot entirely in high definition in Maryland.

"We stand at a very important time in film history right now," Myers says when I called him late last September. "In days gone by Joe Filmmaker went to film school, graduated with a degree that largely renders him unemployable, migrated out West, and spent the first six months he was out there waiting tables begging for a job on a set getting somebody's coffee or wrangling somebody's cables. The odds that you were going to be able to go out to Hollywood and make a film were slim to none."

Myers mentions that historically filmmaking was like the restaurant business. Before you serve your first meal you have to invest in infrastructure: Film was a money-suck. "Seventy-five percent of your budget was gone before you even shot a single frame," Myers says. "With the digital revolution anybody can go out and buy a `prosumer' camera and gather up their friends and family and make a movie. And with companies like Lions Gate saying, `We'll get your finished product and we'll put it out there for you,' now anybody can make a movie."

Alonso tells me to speak with local director Kevin Kangas, who created quite a buzz in horror-movie fans with his 2004 straight-to-DVD feature Fear of Clowns, which was distributed by Lions Gate Films Home Video. "We had just finished Hunting Humans, and I was looking to make something that would get us more attention," Kangas says in an e-mail interview. "I decided to make my next flick . . . about a big, iconic psychopath stalking an attractive woman. When I decided the main character's `mask' would be a clown's makeup--the rest fell into place. Lions Gate heard about the flick online and hunted me down, and from there it moved pretty fast." In 2006, Kangas assembled the majority of the same cast and crew and shot a sequel, Fear of Clowns 2, which was completed last year and is targeting an early 2009 distribution.

I wonder whether the tidal wave of film resulting from new technology will just produce a bunch of trash. "You go to Best Buy, Blockbuster--the walls are lined with these lurid covers, and then you watch the movie and it's just something someone shot in their backyard," Myers says. "Although it is now possible for anyone to make a movie, the downside is that anyone can make a movie."

Overall, the indie directors give the digital revolution a mixed review. "There's good news and bad news," Kangas says. "The good news is that it's easier than ever to make a movie. The bad news is that there's a glut of bad stuff out there due to the good news above."

Anderson sees digital video as an excellent training tool and a way to gain recognition. "YouTube has really shown that anybody can be recognized," he says. "It's a great way to get exposure and practice as you get into the film industry before you're shooting on 35-mm or 70-mm."

"It also raises the bar for our cinematographers and people that are putting movies together because you can put a brilliant 10-minute film on a camera phone," Alonso says. "Then I watch a 90-minute piece and I go, `Dude this is horrible.' Have you seen college pictures these days? They look like major motion pictures."

I'm in a freezing cold Dundalk this past January to shoot a film in a house that's undergoing rehab, and there's hardly any heat. I discuss the upcoming scene with actor Tom Lyle, who looks weird to me because he's chrome-domed. Lyle had hair the last time I saw him, which was when I met him auditioning for Myers' Penny Dreadful last July. The house belongs to a relation of indie director Jimmy Traynor, who has made an astonishing number of films--more than 100, from video-camera shorts to full-length features. He likes to brag about how little his movies have cost. "Beat the Bastard Down and The Ticket were made for less than $200," Traynor says when I call him last November. "Most people can't even plan a movie for that much money."

He uses a gonzo filmmaking technique, shooting his movies in a long weekend. Part of that is down to his directing style: Do what he says and get the hell out of the way. One of his latest ventures, the one we're shooting, Live and Die, was completed without a script, with Traynor directing actors' improvisation. It's challenging to ad lib a scene, but Lyle pulls off a compelling performance.

Traynor says that the Baltimore film business "comes and it goes. There's a lot of movies, and then there's a drought where there's none."

Dorsey, from the Baltimore Film Office, also mentions the ups and downs. "It's very unpredictable," she says.

Casting director Pat Moran has witnessed those ups and downs firsthand. She started working with John Waters in the 1960s, and since the early 1980s nothing big moves through the Baltimore-Washington corridor without her knowing about it, and she usually casts it. Most recently, she handled local casting for The Wire.

"Oh, boy, I have some views," she says when I called last October to ask her views on filmmaking in Maryland. "And they're not politically correct.

"Annapolis has been whining about trying to get more revenue, but you had an industry that was No. 5 in the country that has slipped to No. 23," she says, hanging on "23" until it sounds obscene. "Either the politicians in Annapolis are too arrogant or too stupid to realize that 0 percent of zero is zero."

Moran is referring to the Maryland legislature only budgeting $4 million in 2007 for its rebate program to attract Hollywood films. More money for rebates would attract more production companies, which would then spend many millions more than the amount of the rebates, she says.

"We're talking about a tax-incentive package that certain smart states have put into place," she says. "Film companies come into this town with nothing but money. Look at the local hire situation--all the technicians are going to Connecticut. [Connecticut] didn't have anything going on. They put together what? A tax-incentive package."

"I personally recognize the importance of funding and tax benefits to the film industry," says Maryland state Sen. George Della Jr. (D-46th District). "I have supported tax incentives in the past and will continue to do so. [Production companies] spend a lot of money."

He's not kidding. Gerbes explains how this affects Maryland. "To give you an idea, in the past 10 years it was about $700 million of economic impact" to the state, he says.

Alonso agrees that Maryland's rebate program can't compete against other states' incentives. "We really don't have tax incentives like Hollywood or Colorado, which is a big, big market right now--or even New Orleans," he says. "You can do a three-picture deal down there, and it isn't going to cost you that much. Here, doing a three-picture deal is a three-picture deal."

From . . . And Justice for All to Homicide: Life on the Street, Academy and Emmy award-winning director Barry Levinson has brought substantial film work and national recognition to Baltimore for decades. "There's the good and the bad of it," Levinson says of Maryland filmmaking by phone from New York. He was suffering from a cold but amusing and chatty nonetheless. "One good thing is that you can crew up in Baltimore. There are a lot of very capable people that you can bring in. The bad news is that Maryland doesn't have any kind of special tax incentives or whatever, and so therefore all--or a lot of--this filmmaking is going to other areas than Maryland.

"Connecticut had like 10 major movies done in a short period of time, including the film I just did, What Just Happened?, with [Robert] De Niro," Levinson continues. "Unless [Maryland] find[s] a new formula, as opposed to what they've been doing, they're going to continue to lose more film business in the future. I don't understand what the resistance is to it.

"You see [Maryland] works on some old thing where they set aside some money, and if movies come in, they give them something back," he says. "As I say, you don't have to have anything in the budget. All you have to do is have some kind of tax plan."

"Well, [Baltimore's] been a film city more than 20 years," says John Waters, who agrees to chat with me even though he's busy with a book and his next movie, Fruitcake. He speaks quickly and anticipates the end of my questions--this guy doesn't waste a second. "But eventually I started making here and then Barry was making here and then all the TV shows came here and then all the studios heard about it. There was good crew here--they didn't have to bring everybody from L.A.

"Baltimore is odd--in the city, what do we have left? Four art theaters and no commercial theaters. I love that. The Senator, the Rotunda, the Charles, and the Landmark. But these are the kind of movies I want to see."

The conversation quickly veers into Maryland film incentives. "It's a flea market, and we're behind," Waters says. "People are moving past our table. They look at each city, and it's whoever has the best price. People used to go to New Orleans all the time, then that switched up and then everybody went to Connecticut because they gave the most money back. Even a television show I was in for Court TV called 'Til Death Do Us Part shot in Toronto. Then I went to Bucharest to be in the [Seed of] Chucky movie because that's the cheapest of all. I mean, [2007's] Hairspray wasn't shot here for many reasons, that probably being one of them."

Last July, I respond to an audition notice and arrive at North Charles Street to a cramped apartment to meet indie director Mark Pfeltz, who's casting for a comedy short called "Bonnie and Clyde--One Last Dance." He chain-smokes, has a'50s greaser pompadour, and tells me he had a hard-partying past. The audition includes calisthenics because, amazingly, Pfeltz is a fitness nut. His Andy Warhol moment came when he broke the Guinness-recognized world sit-up record in 1986, doing a staggering 45,005 sit-ups in 58.5 hours. After auditioning half the actors in the Mid-Atlantic region, he's selected his cast, and we go to Clifton Park for physical training, which Pfeltz runs like the Army does (he did a hitch in the service). After a few training sessions, all the other actors have dropped out, and he winds up rotating through four or five complete casts over the summer.

Covered in sweat, we ride back from physical in his beater car with the windows down, listening to Frankie Lymon. I ask him why he's making the short, which is his first film. "You know about Billy Bob Thornton?" he asks. Pfeltz regales me with the yarn of how the actor was table-waiting in Los Angeles and met legendary director Billy Wilder, who encouraged Thornton to write. Sling Blade, written, directed by, and starring Thornton, launched him to international renown.

"You get to my age," says Pfeltz, who's 42, "and you don't have many shots left. And I don't even care about my own fame. I want to give up-and-coming actors a place where they can showcase their talent and become stars."

Although I would have bet against it, in the 11th hour, Pfeltz assembled a team of solid actors, an experienced camera operator, and shot the film. He's now found an editor and the short is in postproduction.

But there is a gap between the expansion of independent films like Pfeltz's and the drawdown in Hollywood features in Maryland. Indies are booming; Hollywood features have fled. The situation with big film in Maryland is even bleaker now than when I first started the interviews last fall.

Earlier this month, I spoke in a conference call to Gerbes and Hannah Lee Byron, the assistant secretary of DBED's Division of Tourism, Film, and the Arts. Gerbes is responsible for promoting Maryland as a location and interfacing with Hollywood insiders, but he's hamstrung by Maryland's weak incentives package. Byron, Gerbes' boss, would help introduce any new incentives legislation, on behalf of the governor, through the General Assembly.

The big-film production surge in Baltimore that prompted me to write this article in the first place is over. "There's been a six-month gap," Gerbes says. "Last week Michigan passed what is going to be the most competitive incentives program in the country. New York increased theirs, as did West Virginia. In the matter of a week, the competition's really ramped up.

"Years ago it was about the locations, the crew base, and how hard an individual film office would go after a production," he says. "Now the first question is, `What is your incentives program?'"

"I fully appreciate the economic and cultural impact of the film industry," Byron says in an e-mail last December. "While I can't discuss specifics of potential legislation at this time, I can confirm that over the past year, my staff and I have been working hard to educate members of Maryland's General Assembly on the significant role that financial incentives play in today's industry."

During our conference call earlier this month, I ask Byron whether her office would be responsible for introducing any new incentives legislation. "Any legislator can introduce legislation," she says. "But if it's administration legislation that the governor's office or [DBED] would introduce, then yes, I would be involved with that process. But I think that what we have in place for the Film Production Rebate program does work."

"I'm a fan of [Gov. Martin] O'Malley's and I've talked to him about this," Waters says. "He was at my Christmas party, and people were cornering him, talking to him about it, so it's not like he doesn't hear. I don't know who's to blame."

The solution to the flight of large-budget film from Maryland is simple. Tax incentives are much more attractive to a production company than Maryland's rebate program. Connecticut, for example, offers a 30 percent tax credit on production expenses. This tax credit is given as a voucher that can be sold or assigned. Axium International's 2007 production incentives guide says, "There are brokers in every state buying transferable credits, and many of them are willing to advance production funds against the credits." Best of all, no money has to be set aside from the state's budget like there is with a cash rebate. Ergo, no annual budget battles.

So repeal the Film Production Rebate fund. Enact a tax-incentive plan like Connecticut's. The governor proposes it through Hannah Lee Byron and her legislative team at DBED, and then the legislature passes it. Sweeten the pot by a couple of points over Connecticut's plan. You'd have major features rolling through Baltimore as soon as later this year, mostly likely featuring $100 million budgets. Done deal. Of course, this is unlikely if Byron thinks the current program is working.

There is no resistance to incentives legislation from the General Assembly. Maryland's first incentives package in 2005 and the current 2007 Film Production Rebate program passed both chambers unanimously. Those who think the legislature is responsible for driving film away from Maryland are lobbying the wrong people. Lobby the governor and DBED to introduce a tax-credit plan.

Big-budget movies will bring in not only the cash influx Maryland badly needs but also intangible benefits. "Film brings in glamour and pride to Baltimore," Dorsey says.

My phone rang last fall, and Central Casting, a Washington-based talent agency, wanted me for Step Up 2 on its final day of filming. The set has quite a different feel from the megamillion Ridley Scott picture. I Googled the director and hit "images" to know what he looks like and read his bio during downtime. His name is Jon Chu, a product of the University of Southern California's famed film school.

After the film has wrapped for good, the cast cheers and poses for pictures. I approach the young director outside where he's puffing on a cigarette. He's lanky and wearing a ball cap (as you've learned) and is so super chill that before I looked him up I thought he was the choreographer.

I shake his hand and tell him it's a pleasure to meet the whiz kid from USC. "I don't know about whiz kid," he says to me, smiling. I ask him what he thinks of Baltimore. "The city is great. I'd never been here before--this is my first time here, for this movie. The people here have been wonderful, very friendly." Chu stomps out a smoke. "This is my first movie, and I'll never forget it." He reaches to shake my hand and asks me again for my name. Class act.

"The location manager for Step Up 2 just wrote me a letter and said how wonderful all the city services were," Dorsey says. "In every neighborhood they went into everyone was friendly, very excited to have them, very hospitable. So, y'know, it's really nice to hear that."

Nice indeed. With that kind of a reputation and a competitive tax scheme, Baltimore could continue to be a venue for great art now and in the future.

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