roll (tax) credits: what the motion picture tax credit means for cleveland

Hollywood might be known as the Dream Factory, but it has begun producing something far more concrete for Cleveland: jobs and economic growth.

Thanks to the recently passed Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit, Cleveland already is experiencing a considerable boost in the quantity and quality of movie productions filming here. While bringing in temporary shoots is a welcome shot in the arm, that's only the opening scene, says Ivan Schwarz, executive director of the Cleveland Film Commission.

"We're trying to create an industry here," he says.

Similar tax incentives already are on the books in 40 other states. Ohio's legislation merely levels the playing field -- albeit a tad tardy. Had it been in place a wee bit sooner, we likely wouldn't have had to suffer the indignity of seeing Detroit cover for Cleveland in the recent Danny Greene biopic "Kill the Irishman."

In addition to hometown pride, Cleveland stands to benefit in far more significant ways, adds Schwarz.

"The way I look at this film incentive is that it's a jobs bill. Because of the incentives, a production that would never have otherwise come here decides that they want shoot their film in Ohio. They don't get anything back until they've spent the money here. They use it to finance their film, and it ends up creating jobs in the state."

Industry pros back that claim up. Tim Iacofano, a native Clevelander and producer for Fox, recently told Variety that location selection is often driven by the best financial deal. "We only seriously looked at locations with tax incentives," he said of his decision to shoot a television pilot in Pittsburgh.

Ohio's tax credits are already paying dividends, with several productions gearing up for summer and fall shoots in Cleveland. The most high-profile among them is "The Avengers," the latest Marvel Comics superhero flick. But this goes well beyond a single movie or big-budget blockbuster. Paramount has plans to film a Halloween-themed comedy later this year starring Nickelodeon star Victoria Justice (iCarly, Zoey 101), and the indie film "Boot Tracks" will start shooting soon.

Incentives aside, does the Cleveland landscape provide a backdrop dreamy enough for Hollywood? Absolutely, says Schwarz.

"Cleveland is an untapped goldmine," he explains. "You can do anything here except for mountains and desert." Just about everything else a film crew might desire can be found within a 45-minute drive of Public Square, including forests, meadows, covered bridges, rivers and, of course, a pretty big lake. And when it comes to a diversity of neighborhoods, Cleveland has that covered, too. "Geographically and architecturally, it's a beautiful city."

To help coordinate and promote all aspects of film production in Cleveland, the Greater Cleveland Film Commission launched a website that contains film-related news, job listings, tax-credit details, and resources for film companies scouting locations.

Though we typically think of these incentives merely as carrots for out-of-state productions, Schwarz says they are designed to benefit local filmmakers as well. "It's open to everybody," he says, "and the idea is to create filmmakers who can work within the Hollywood system, but choose to live and work in Cleveland."

Local filmmaker Robert Banks has worked in many aspects of the film industry in Cleveland. He sees potential for our city's film industry to grow, but says there's a lot of work still to be done.

"When Hollywood productions come here, their biggest complaint is that people don't understand set etiquette," Banks confesses. "Every so often I have to nudge the professors teaching the film courses here and ask, 'Are you talking to your students about that?'"

Those who stand to gain the most as a result of the tax incentive, says Banks, are folks like Keith Nickoson, Dave Litz and John Turk. These skilled local technicians have worked as crew on past Hollywood productions that were shot in town, including "Spider-Man 3," "The Oh in Ohio," and "American Splendor." Banks says that until we train more local folks, the best production jobs will continue going to out-of-state crews.

Looking to ensure that we cultivate those skilled staffers is Evan Lieberman, director of Cleveland State University's film program. Of his students, Lieberman says, "I work very hard to train them to function in any capacity, from being a production assistant to working in the grip and electric department. We're very consciously trying to train our students to work in the emerging Cleveland film economy."

Lieberman says the film program has been growing rapidly in recent years. Roughly 140 students are currently majoring in film and digital media, with about 25 of them focusing on film production. Anticipating even more growth, the department soon will be moving to new facilities with a soundstage and state-of-the-art production equipment.

Regarding the tax incentives, Lieberman says, "I think it's a terrific achievement by Ivan Schwarz and the Cleveland Film Commission to really jumpstart the local production industry. And it gives our program an added boost. A good number of our students will still go elsewhere, but at least now they have the opportunity to stay in Cleveland and work in their field if they want to."

While the hope is that the incentives will create jobs directly in the local film industry, the productions they bring spin-off countless other economic opportunities. Film crews need places to stay, food to eat, cars to rent, and all matter of other goods and services. It is Cleveland businesses that will provide them.

One such business is StrEat Mobile Bistro, a highly equipped kitchen on wheels that provides on-set food for cast and crew. Launched by Izzy Schachner, a 15-year veteran of the Cleveland food scene, StrEat is no run-of-the-mill food truck. In fact, in its previous life, the $100,000 rig served as official craft services provider for the show "West Wing."

"We're the one-stop shop for production catering and craft services in Ohio," says Schachner.

Thus far, the productions StrEat has catered have been smaller ones, usually serving between 60 and 100 people a day. But Schachner is optimistic that he and his rig will begin inching closer to 800, the number of hungry cast and crew he can serve in a single day.

"It's a growing market and a tremendous business opportunity for Cleveland," he says.

While the potential for something real and substantial is here, only time will tell how much these tax credits will boost Cleveland's bottom line. Given enough talent, drive and guidance, Cleveland can cultivate a genuine film scene capable of providing full-time employment for a good number of folks in and out of the biz.

Bob Ignizio is the editor of Cleveland Movie Blog, which reviews films playing in Cleveland and provides coverage of local filmmakers.

Photos Bob Perkoski
- Photo 1: Executive Director of the Cleveland Film Commission, Ivan Schwarz
- Photos 2 - 6: Cleveland Filmmaker Robert Banks filming a feature with actress Berta Ska
- Photo 7:Izzy Schachner owner of StrEat Mobile Bistro

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