Motion Picture Tax Credit translates into box office hit for local economy

The Making of a Movie Town

Greater Cleveland Film Commission president Ivan Schwarz is one of the main reasons the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit was enacted, but by no means does he think it’s time to rest on his laurels.

“We want to be the Hollywood of the Midwest,” he quips. “Our goal this year is to grow [the industry] to over $1 billion a year.” Furthermore, Schwarz wants to raise the current $20 million cap on the incentive.

Schwarz’s ultimate goal is to build a production center and school to boost Cleveland’s capabilities and educate the next generation of industry professionals. “Right now, we’ve done a great job, but I don’t want it to be a hobby,” he explains. “We want to be creating jobs and have people living here and excited because there are opportunities to work.”

Schwarz envisions a center with eight sound stages, a visual effects studio and a strong educational component. “There are several local colleges in the area interested in this," he says, adding that implementation on the facility could begin as early as this year.

Filmmaker Robert Banks thinks Schwarz’s plan in a good one. “The Film Commission has come a long way," he says. "Cleveland has a tremendous legacy in terms of interesting films, but it has to be continuous.”

Banks adds that residents have to be more tolerant of the inconveniences that come with major film productions taking place in the city. “In order to do multi-million dollar productions that bring money to the city," he says, "we have to make sacrifices."

According to an economic impact study done by Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University released in December, the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit has created the equivalent of 1,729 full-time jobs since 2011.

The credit has generated more than $400 million in economic impact and garnered a return on investment of $2.01, meaning that for every $1 spent by the state through the incentive, $2.01 went into Ohio's economy.

More than 65 productions have been filmed in Northeast Ohio since 2009 with more than 30 in the last year alone. The report also shows that 71 percent of Ohio's production dollars were spent in Northeast Ohio in the past two years.

Cleveland has been the location for many major motion pictures since then, according to Greater Cleveland Film Commission president Ivan Schwarz, and the desire to shoot feature films and commercials in Cleveland is on the rise.

“Six years ago, before we had the incentive, there were zero,” he says of Cleveland film projects. “We had maybe three days of production a year before the incentive.”

While most Clevelanders recall the headaches associated with the city shutting down the Shoreway to shoot “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” or coworkers’ stories of spotting Nicholas Cage while he was in town shooting “Dog Eat Dog” last year, Schwarz points out that productions of all types and sizes, from music videos and commercials to independent and studio films, are continuously filming in the Cleveland area.

And while the region has seen a growth in the number of independent filmmakers, there is also a wealth of production jobs filled by Clevelanders, from art directors to production assistants.

The job market is so strong, many film and commercial production pros have chosen Cleveland over Hollywood, including these four locals who have traded in their day jobs to successfully pursue full-time careers in the film industry right here in Northeast Ohio.
<span class="content-image-text">Filmmaker Michael Scott Manne</span>Filmmaker Michael Scott Manne 
From architect to art department

After earning a degree in architecture from the University of Cincinnati in 1992, Michael Manne headed to Cleveland for a job. But after a 20-year career as an architect, Manne was itching to pursue his true passion: the making of motion pictures.

“As my kids got older and after doing architecture for 20 years, it becomes a little more predictable and a little more repetitive,” recalls the Cleveland Heights resident. “It lost some of the intrigue for me.”

Manne, who made movies for fun with friends in the 1990s, decided to explore the commercial and film production business a bit deeper when the tax credit was enacted.

He met with Schwarz and started looking for ways to get experience and landed his first job in the industry working as an unpaid truck driver on “Kings of Summer.”

“I wanted the experience and I wanted to see the process happen,” Manne recalls. “It just worked out that they needed someone to drive a truck, so I drove a grip and electric truck for 25 days of shooting.”

Manne says his early experiences were an independent study of sorts, teaching him almost every aspect of production work. “Whatever came my way I would take and I met a lot of nice people and learned that my experience in architecture and graphic design, as well as in fine art, seems to fit really well with the art and props department on films and commercials, he says.

Today, Manne lands enough production work, from graphic designer to art director, to consider the film and commercial business his full time job. Last year, he worked on four feature films including “The Charnel House,” and six commercials, including one for First Merit Bank. Throughout it all, Manne has supplemented that work with freelance graphic design and architecture. He also just completed a screenplay, which he hopes one day may be made into a movie.

The diversity of work creates a professional kaleidoscope of sorts.

"It keeps it very fresh and it’s very different than going to the same cubicle every day,” he says.

<span class="content-image-text">Filmmaker Jennifer Klide on the set of Draft Day</span>Filmmaker Jennifer Klide on the set of Draft DayA Rough Road

Jennifer Klide also started on a different path, majoring in elementary education in college. But when she moved out to California, Klide, a self-taught seamstress and clothing designer, discovered the movie production business.

“I just fell into it,” she recalls. “I saw a sign on a post in San Francisco that an independent film needed a costume designer.”

Klide got the job and has been working in various film production jobs ever since. An Old Brooklyn native, she moved back to Cleveland 10 years ago to be closer to her loved ones and was surprised to find production work here. She has worked as a production designer, set dresser, set decorator and art director, among others.

“I landed a job somewhere along the way and I just kept going up the ladder,” Klide says, estimating that she’s worked over 1,000 unpaid hours to get experience. “Those of us who really like it are a rare breed. It’s really rough, but we just keep coming back for more.”

While Klide has worked on big-name studio films like “Draft Day” and “Alex Cross,” she is most proud of her work on the small independent films such as “Charnel House,” which hit the festival circuit, “Kings of Summer” and “Take Shelter.”

Although Klide worked in the industry before the tax credit, it has allowed her to work consistently in Cleveland and across the state. “I was able to hang in there and work regularly, I was one of the lucky ones,” she says. “And there are a lot of other people working year-round. It’s been really good and we’re all really hoping it continues into the future.”

<span class="content-image-text">Filmmaker Robert Ruggeri</span>Filmmaker Robert RuggeriIn our own backyard

Like Klide, Bob Ruggeri moved to California to pursue a career as a film producer, but in 2006 he returned to Cleveland to be near family. With 15 years under his belt as a producer, writer and director, he found area business tough at first.

“When I first started as a freelancer, obviously there were no incentives in place,” he recalls, adding that anyone with talent would leave for better opportunities. “Lots of films were going to Canada, or Michigan, Iowa or Pennsylvania, where there were [film tax credits],” he says. “All of my friends were leaving to get better positions as soon as they learned the ropes.”

Those who stayed in Cleveland relied on commercial work to get them through the rough spots. But Schwarz and other film proponents were also watching what other nearby states were doing.

“While we were waiting and our politicians were looking at other states’ incentives, we didn’t shut down here,” Ruggeri says. “Ohio was able to step in.” Soon after the tax credit kicked in, “The Avengers” began filming in Cleveland, along with “Take Shelter.”

“All of a sudden every crew member was working on one of two movies,” he says. “It was a great experience.”  

That led to more work for Ruggeri and he’s never looked back. “Being from Cleveland - and I have a family life - I always wanted to produce films in my home town,” he says. “The tax incentive has given me that opportunity.”

Ruggeri sees Cleveland as being in a position to leverage its established reputation. “We are at a critical point now,” he says, adding that the local film industry infrastructure is solid, with requests for work on the rise.

“I think people would be surprised,” he says of the way the Cleveland film industry has grown. “It’s kind of surreal. All of these things are happening in our backyard.”
<span class="content-image-text">Filmmaker Darryl Dickenson</span>Filmmaker Darryl Dickenson 
The LeBron factor

Movies aren’t the only production work in town these says. A good number of commercials, short films and documentaries also offer opportunities for those in production work. Darryl Dickenson got into the industry while studying photography at Cuyahoga Community College where he got involved in a summer internship program. He made some connections and established himself in commercials, features and documentaries, mostly as a production assistant (PA).

“Initially I just wanted to shoot music videos,” Dickenson explains. “I met some cool cats, maintained those relationships and now I hold out for the larger commercials that come to town.”

While Dickenson acknowledges that a PA is low on the totem pole, the position has allowed him to get experience on different aspects of production work. “I don’t mind assisting,” he says. “I’ve worked in every single department. A lot of people shy away from it, but I can do those things and learn about other departments. It offers flexibility.”

Although he's worked on a few feature films, Dickenson says he has gained the most from his work on smaller productions. “I feel like I learned a lot working on documentaries because it’s a bit slower pace than commercials and you get to wear many hats,” he says.

Working on LeBron James commercials, adds Dickenson, whether for Nike or Beats by Dre, has been another big coup for Cleveland. “LeBron has totally allowed the opportunity with those commercials to be seen as big name credibility,” he says. “He brought in bigger commercials, directors and production companies.”

Klide agrees that LeBron’s clout has benefited the local film industry. “He transformed the production business in a number of ways - with the level of commercials that came to town, with world class directors,” she says, adding that she felt lucky to work on a number of commercials featuring No. 23, which garnered top wages and talent.

“It was interesting to see LeBron grow," she adds. "He has choices in what he can do, and these are big commercials.”

Dickenson also is grateful for the experiences he’s had in Cleveland productions. “It’s been an amazing journey,” he says. “And I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.