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Pierre Bagley showed up to his first major public oversight hearing without his lines.
He was six weeks into his tenure as director of the District’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. Bagley wasn’t told he’d needed to prepare written testimony, he said. “Well, do you have an opening statement, something you’d like to say on the basis of what you’ve heard here thus far?” asked At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange, whose Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs oversees Bagley’s office.
“I do not,” Bagley answered. He looked up at Orange, a little flustered. “Did you have a specific question?”
Orange had just finished lamenting a phenomenon familiar to any Washingtonian film buff: All too often, movies set in the District aren’t shot in the District. “It’s extremely disturbing,” Orange said. “The star from Captain America—I forget his name—he comes to D.C. and does a couple pushups on the Mall, and there’s an article in the Washington Post, and then you see our Metro station [in the film] and it’s in Ohio! And the only reason it’s in Ohio is there’s an incentive.”
Simply put, D.C. hasn’t been able to keep up with states like Louisiana, Georgia, or Maryland, all of which can offer alluring incentives, sometimes in the tens of millions of dollars. But the District also hasn’t really tried to compete on that scale, especially in recent years. Orange wanted to know: Why shouldn’t it?
“House of Cards opens with a spectacular credit sequence, giving a vivid sense of our city,” Michael Canning, author of Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC, said at the oversight hearing. “It’s a spectacular opening. Then we move into the episodes, and all of it is filmed in Baltimore. To me it’s a kind of tease, promising the glittering capital but basically avoiding its real streets.”
Put like that, the scene sounds scripted: Beautiful city loses out on film deals and struggles without the economic opportunities they provide. It’s the perfect set-up for a story with a heartfelt ending featuring a come-from-behind win for the protagonist town: The film industry comes to Washington, provides jobs, and puts the city on display across the nation, maybe with swelling violins. But Bagley’s testimony was anything but scripted.
At the hearing, Bagley and Orange jousted over whether the city had followed its own laws when it provided tax incentives to three films shot in D.C. before Bagley took office. Bagley hadn’t yet met with Orange, as the councilmember had expected him to do. Bagley had to call in two layers of backup to help explain how the incentives law worked. The director was not directing. He seemed to want to appease everyone—he even declared, at one point, “Frankly, I agree with all of them”—even when councilmembers, the mayor’s office, various local filmmakers, and local industry experts all disagreed. “We need to know what is the vision,” Orange told Bagley as his testimony ended. “We will fund it, but we need to know what it is.”
Orange, like plenty of his constituents, was fed up with seeing the District misrepresented. Perhaps the most famous—and most egregious—example came in the 1987 film No Way Out, which features a chase down an escalator next to the C&O Canal and into a fictional Georgetown Metro stop, which happens to look not at all like the Metro and precisely like the Baltimore subway. Since then, the city has made repeated overtures toward bolstering its film scene—and thus, hopefully, ensuring more accurate renderings of the District and picking up the film bona fides any big-time city ought to have. Mayor Vince Gray led a trip to Los Angeles three years ago to schmooze Hollywood studio execs. Vincent Orange wants to strengthen D.C.’s film incentives. There are frequent complaints about unrealistic portrayals of Washington, years after Kevin Costner’s chase. And now, finally, the city’s taking a new tack in its efforts to change the film scene. Instead of hoping Hollywood comes to the District, the District is bringing a bit of Hollywood, in the form of Bagley, here to fix its problems. What and whether he’ll change—and whether the city is willing to offer up the amounts of cash that have helped filming blossom in neighboring Virginia and Maryland at D.C.’s expense—well, the script is still in development.
If Pierre Bagley is approaching his new post as a producer, as he says he is, one might conclude that producers must specialize in agreeing with everyone. Unfortunately, Bagley presides over an office whose responsibilities are the subject of one of the D.C. government’s ongoing disagreements.
On the one hand, there’s the gung-ho Council overseer Orange, who wants the city to be a more significant player in matters related to the screen. Orange, who did not respond to several requests for comment for this story, doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda, aside from getting to the bottom of the situation and bringing economic activity to the District. His chief opponent appears to be the mayor’s office, which has reduced the size of the city’s fund for tax incentives.
Enter Bagley, who was hired in January. He came to the post from a career in film, having worked as a director, producer, and writer. His most recent movie is a drama about golf called From the Rough. Starring Taraji P. Henson and Tom Felton, it was released this spring (to decent reviews) after years of delay thanks to a conflict with a financial backer. Bagley had once worked with a friend of former Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Victor Hoskins, who recommended Bagley to Gray. Bagley has never worked in government before now.
Bagley aims to put D.C.’s neighborhoods on the big screen more often. It’s good for the local economy, he says—productions bring in workers who stay in District hotels, eat food from District restaurants, and get around on District public transportation. And it’s good for the local film industry, because the folks from Hollywood hire local artists and laborers to work short-term jobs. Or so the argument goes.
But it’s about more than just money for Bagley. The film office director is new to D.C., having moved to town to take this job.
And as Bagley sees it, his job at the film office is to create a sustainable industry in Washington. Part of that job involves teaming up with films’ producers to facilitate the process of shooting here. A producer, he says, is really a salesman, and he’s selling the District of Columbia. That can be tough. Historically, filmmakers have had a hard time navigating the necessary bureaucracy, which includes more than a dozen agencies, in both the city and federal governments. One scene in The West Wing, for example, involved shooting in front of the Capitol. Producers needed to secure permits from the Capitol Police (for the Capitol building), the National Park Service (for the sidewalk), and the D.C. government (for the street).
The problem with turning D.C. into a mecca for film production, then, is that the city doesn’t actually own most of its attractions. Producers often want to come to D.C. to get shots of the monuments, but the feds own the National Mall and much of the city’s parkland. And the feds don’t have any incentive to bring Hollywood to Washington.
Federal authorities aren’t going to help anyone cut through their red tape. Consider the folks who wanted to film a Capitol One commercial on the Mall in 2012, according to one local filmmaker. They wanted a goat in the ad. Sounds fine—but the Park Service, which controls the Mall, nixed the plan. A goat doesn’t just visit national parkland; if it’s there, it’s considered to be grazing, and while some national parks allow grazing, the Mall doesn’t. They eventually green-screened the goat into the shot.
Of course, the feds don’t have a monopoly on red tape. Last August, the Metropolitan Police Department refused to allow its cars to be used in a motorcade shot for House of Cards, causing the show to cancel the shoot the film office had arranged and instead move it to Baltimore. In October, House of Cards returned to D.C. to shoot a motorcade scene with prop vehicles, but only after an embarassing Washington Business Journal article made the August dispute public.
As a producer, Bagley understands the reluctance to bringing films to Washington. “If I can avoid it, I probably wouldn’t do anything here,” he says in an interview. But as a city government official, his job is to work against that negative perception.
First, that means streamlining the process. Bagley wants the film office to become a one-stop shop, with help for producers navigating the federal permitting process. A lot of films need monument shots—there’s no way around it. Baltimore or Pittsburgh can’t stand in for the Jefferson or Lincoln memorials. (Although for Lincoln, Richmond stood in for D.C.) So the films will come, but they usually get out of town as quickly as they can once they’ve gotten the stuff they can’t replicate elsewhere. In a February interview, Bagley says he wants to convince producers that while they’re here, they might as well shoot the rest of their films in D.C.’s neighborhoods. As a Hollywood vet, he has one advantage over his predecessors in the film office. While Bagley says the film office could better facilitate permitting through its website, he hasn’t made clear just how he’ll do a better job than past D.C. film czars helping Hollywood cut through red tape, which has always been one of the missions of his agency.
At the very least, Bagley has become a particularly enthusiastic Washingtonian. He’d been to the city 10 years ago and was unimpressed. “It just seemed like a corporate town, like a town that shuts down at 5,” he says. “Now it’s a 24/7 town. I’m in the most exciting city on the planet. There’s nothing else like D.C. Straight up.”
Bagley plays up the allure of the government side of D.C. “This city is really provocative now,” he says. “Government now—good, bad, or indifferent—is how people believe things have to be changed. In L.A., it’s all fake. Here, everything matters.”
But Bagley also wants to move beyond the conception of D.C. as a federal city, which he calls “a really limited view of this city. That’s not going to be lasting.” He’s fallen in love with the neighborhoods and people here. A city with so much passion, Bagley says, could be the setting for any story. “People here are serious—about anything, even saving a salamander. This is a great place for great stories. Her, American Hustle—those could have been shot here. Those kinds of movies are what we’re in the running for: movies about urban people. After a while, people will say ‘We already did a West Wing.’ How many of those stories about a president or first lady can you do? You can do an infinite number of movies about just people.”
Some local filmmakers worry they may get lost in the shuffle, overshadowed by the Hollywood glitz Bagley’s set his sights on. But Bagley says the business will help them as well; films lead to more films, as the bigger productions foster new talent and feed on the city’s existing resources. Film more, and all filmmakers win. Bagley talks Washington up just as he might any other city—he makes D.C. sound better, but not categorically different. But while Washington’s federal monuments set it apart from other towns and should keep drawing filmmakers to the city indefinitely, it’s also marked, immutably, by its legal status—quirks that affect taxes and bureaucracy in ways that may irreconcilably foil Bagley’s ambitions.
Any director of the film office has to work in the shadow of Crystal Palmer, the District’s longtime movie czar. Palmer, who took the job in 1986, wasn’t hugely popular among local filmmakers. She didn’t bring many films to D.C.—the job got even harder when security amped up after 9/11—and sometimes she lost potential deals. (Then again, D.C. has never had a competitive incentive program.) Chris Rock directed the 2003 film Head of State, in which he played a D.C. councilmember who runs for president. Rock considered shooting it in the District, according to Joseph Martin, a Washington producer and location scout who talked to Rock about the movie. But Palmer and the film office were slow to approach Rock to talk about a deal. By the time they got to him, he’d already decided to shoot in Maryland.
“All this stuff made me think about the dollars and why we’re not getting more stuff here,” says Martin, who is also a former advisory neighborhood commissioner from Petworth. “There was just kind of a lack of effort on the part of the film office.”
Martin says Palmer routinely made missteps and misstatements in her attempts to promote the District. While that didn’t scare off producers who already knew the rules by which they could film in the city—The West Wing, for example, shot locally for years—it could have scared away potential new partners who didn’t know any better than to listen to the city’s film czar. Palmer declined to respond directly to questions.
Eventually, Martin took the issue to the mayor’s office. In 2008, he found himself giving a presentation to Neil Albert, then deputy mayor for economic development and Palmer’s boss. Palmer was out of a job about a week later.
Her replacement, Kathy Hollinger, had a similarly unremarkable tenure, though not nearly such a long one. Gray reappointed Palmer when he took office in 2010, to accusations of cronyism. (Palmer, in addition to having already held the office for 22 years, is an old friend of Gray’s and the wife of former Councilmember Harold Brazil.) Palmer remained in the post until last year, when she left to become a senior advisor to Hoskins shortly after the debacle involving the cancelled House of Cards motorcade shot. An interim film director served for a few months, and Bagley took the job in January.
To compete with major film players like New Orleans and Atlanta, D.C. would have to amp up its game significantly. Hollywood is moving beyond California, and quickly. Louisiana has become the nation’s leader in feature filmmaking; Georgia comes in second place. Martin has gotten calls from a company in England asking what London neighborhoods could stand in for D.C. And Maryland has built a strong film and TV industry, winning shows like House of Cards and Veep. Many states—Maryland and Virginia among them—have entered the arms race enthusiastically. Others, like Michigan, are seeing legislators debate incentive programs’ merits. The District could throw itself into the competition. But is the investment worth it?
The short-term benefit of luring major productions to the District is to bring business to the city. Film productions require huge crews that infuse money into the local economy—with a bit of District taxes paid along the way. Producers can employ D.C. residents to work on those projects, too—many of them in blue-collar jobs.
That’s not just the case for big-budget features. Bagley just finished working with Red Bull on a commercial. In addition to performing bureaucratic acrobatics to coordinate among MPD, the Capitol Police, the U.S. Park Police, and the District Department of Transportation to ensure street closings went smoothly, Bagley’s office brought in business for the city, on the order of around $1 million in two days of shooting, according to the agency’s estimate. Of the 165 people hired to work on the ad, 30 members of the crew were locals and 70 were employees of the Metropolitan Police Department, Fire and Emergency Service Department, and District Department of Transportation whose overtime pay was footed by the production.
Bagley and a number of local filmmakers are still more enthusiastic about building a long-term, sustainable industry. The more productions the film office brings to the District, the more businesses will already be in place to help productions looking to shoot in town. Then smaller-scale local productions can take advantage of those same resources, and the industry takes off, big time. New Orleans-sized big time, in theory.
That’s why Bagley’s so excited about a recent deal that will bring Pigmental Studios, a new animation company, to D.C. But Bagley has a pretty inflated sense of the studio’s impact. He calls Pigmental the biggest animation studio since Pixar or Dreamworks. It’s hard to tell how the company, founded in February, will perform, but it currently has a staff of 24. 20th Century Fox’s Blue Sky Studios, for example, employs more than 10 times as many people. Bagley claims the Pigmental deal helped D.C. filmmaker Jonathan Zurer arrange to shoot a film in Scotland, but Zurer says otherwise: While the person who helped him with the Scotland deal is also a partner in Pigmental, the two business exchanges were unrelated. “I have nothing to do with Pigmental, and Pigmental is not connected to my Scotland film,” Zurer writes in an email.
The Pigmental deal also doesn’t quite fit the model of a standard film incentive. (It was brokered by the film office and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.) The standard deal looks more like this: The District has a specifically allocated fund from which money can be drawn to rebate producers’ tax costs. Currently, that fund is set at $2.5 million for fiscal year 2015. It used to be $4 million, but there were never enough film deals to need that much money, according to the mayor’s budget director, Eric Goulet, who wrote the bill in question when he worked for Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who’s also a longtime proponent of boosting the city’s film business. When film hawks complain about the budget being taken away, they’re complaining about the mayor’s office’s reduction of that $4 million to $1 million. (The Council then added another $1.5 million.)
Up to $250,000 in taxes can be refunded for any one film that shoots in the District for sufficient time—but that can only happen once the taxes have been paid. That means local filmmakers, most of whom work on a much smaller scale than their West Coast counterparts, aren’t likely to be able to put up the money to qualify.
National Treasure (2007), State of Play (2009), and How Do You Know (2010) each received tax incentives from the District’s fund. In two cases, the city made money, though not much. According to a study by ECONorthwest, National Treasure brought in $411,484 in total tax revenues, and the District rebated $238,918; the city made $1.72 for every dollar spent on incentives. State of Play brought Washington $1.80 on each dollar. For the Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson vehicle How Do You Know, though, the city didn’t follow the law Goulet had written, which limited the amount a film could get in rebates. Then-Mayor Adrian Fenty waived the limit, along with other requirements intended as safeguards. On that film, the city made only 18 cents for each dollar it spent. In other words, the city lost 82 percent of the money it spent. (That’s an even worse financial outcome than that of the movie, which lost 60 percent of its $120 million budget.)
Even if the District followed Goulet’s law to the letter and turned film deals into money for the city—in the form of both taxes and money pumped into the local economy—the city still might have a hard time competing on the national stage. Other jurisdictions can abate income taxes; the District can’t, because federal law prevents the District from collecting income tax from nonresidents at all. Filmmakers, actors, professional athletes, commuters—no difference; none pay D.C. income taxes, so they’re stuck paying taxes to other jurisdictions without any prospect of relief here as an incentive. A change there would require cooperation from federal lawmakers. “It’s just not realistically going to happen,” Goulet says.
“Tax incentives are a house of cards within themselves,” local filmmaker Jon Gann said at an oversight hearing. It seems easy: If you build it, they will come. But D.C. would be joining the incentives arms race years after other jurisdictions started running. “A lot of states have these kinds of incentives,” says Jessica Fulton of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. “Filmmakers are able to play states against each other to get the most money. So each state is trying to one-up the others, and it ends up being a costly game that nobody is able to win.” D.C., tiny in comparison to most states, just doesn’t have the money to compete, even if it went all-in. Orange and Evans have each proposed sources for funding—Orange suggests collecting 1 percent of city grants to real estate contractors; Evans suggests using money from sales tax revenue—but neither proposal was well received. (In other loony proposal news, Orange has also suggested at least two sites for a sound stage, one of which is part of a hypothetical redevelopment of the RFK Stadium lot that would also be required to include a “hotel zone” and a “movie theater and cinema chain.”)
Plus, the logistical difficulty of navigating overlapping government agencies is enough to scare plenty of filmmakers away. There’s the insurmountable disadvantage of the District’s inability to abate income taxes. And securing deals can leave a city at the mercy of a filmmaker—after passing over Washington for the bulk of its shooting because the city wouldn’t fork up $3.5 million to underwrite expenses, House of Cards held Maryland hostage, threatening to leave the state unless it met demands for more money. And, according to Canning, it’s not even clear that luring feature films to D.C. would help build the local talent base Bagley dreams of, because the projects tend to be too short to offer sufficient training.
Finally, there’s the general air of incoherence coming from the D.C. government. Bagley talks a good game on the allure of putting Washington in the movies. But ask him about the details and he falters, much as he did when faced with Orange’s oversight hearing questions.
Washington, Bagley says, is “the only city that could double for SoHo or the Upper East Side.” A few minutes later: “We can never compete with [New York or L.A.]—nor can they compete with us.”
Bagley insists that bolstering one segment of the film industry is good for all the others. Pigmental, despite being an animation studio, will be good for the live-action and documentary scenes. Signing Hollywood deals will help locals working on much smaller projects. “They’re all the same talent,” Bagley says.
Zurer, the producer and location scout, says otherwise: “There’s always been different sorts of circles of production. The people who work on the feature films aren’t the same people who work on the government films or industrial films or who work on documentaries. They’re different worlds and they don’t always overlap.”
Mostly, though, Bagley’s ambitions may be most limited by his superiors’. The mayor’s office isn’t so enthusiastic about incentives, so Bagley says his job isn’t to lure outside productions with financial carrots. That’s a slightly different tune from his D.C.-on-display attitude at the beginning of his tenure, and one that could anger local film scouts.
And so Bagley’s challenge is familiar: to build a local film industry, and buttress it with location shooting from Hollywood, without the financial muscle boasted by neighboring municipalities. The benefit of having someone from the private sector leading the film office is that he can understand what producers need as a career bureaucrat cannot. The disadvantage, of course, is that he’s less practiced in navigating the political and procedural aspects of the job. Not that Bagley isn’t learning the politician’s style; he’s taken to using the verb “incent,” which the Online Etymology Dictionary describes as “U.S. government-speak.”
Bagley is big on the phrase “sustainable industry” but light on the details of how to get there. He doesn’t seem so big on facts, either—or at least the facts he reports are fairly often contradicted by others in the industry. He dreams big, perhaps because that’s what he was hired to do and what his Council overseer does. He’s right that D.C. is a vibrant town, with more than its federal core to recommend it. But D.C. has long been home to a robust documentary industry that looks beyond the federal attractions; maybe it’s the pre-existing locals, to whom D.C.’s neighborhoods don’t need to be sold, whom the film office should focus on helping. Theirs would be a more modest film industry, but it could be a genuinely Washingtonian one—one somewhat freer from the feds’ whims.
Orange is hard on Bagley, the newcomer shoved into a badly defined office with an unimpressive history. He asks why Bagley hasn’t delivered more updates, why he doesn’t have more plans, why he isn’t suggesting that the city do more. “Either we should be in all the way or we should get out,” Orange said at an oversight hearing. “If the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development doesn’t have a sound mission and they’re not here to help us be a part of this industry, then why do we have that office?”