How much Hollywood does the Districtwant? A lot, according to Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who cited Netflix’s House of Cards last week as he pushed for millions of dollars of workforce development funds to be used instead to replenish film incentive money at a D.C. Council budget meeting. If the political drama’s opening credits are filled with shots of the District, Evans said, why shouldn’t the rest of the show film here, too?
It’s a pitch that’ll likely sound amenable to At-Large Councilmember and fellow film-incentive backer Vincent Orange, who said during his recent mayoral run that he wanted to lure the show away from its principal location in Baltimore. (Mayor Vince Gray, on the other hand, calls pulling the money from workforce development mind-boggling.)
Before wooing House of Cards, though, the District should consider just how much trouble one middlebrow series can cause—and whether the city’s ready for it. Attempts to film a motorcade for House of Cards last August ignited a turf war between the city’s film office and the Metropolitan Police Department that the show’s fictional schemer Frank Underwood might have fit right into, according to emails LL obtained.
The fracas left one location scout fuming that the District’s government is “corrupt and dysfunctional”—presumably not in a bankable, House of Cards kind of way.
At first, the House of Cards motorcade shoot set for last Aug. 3 looked like a rare opportunity to grab some production dollars from Maryland, which has had its own struggles with the show. The then-head of the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, Crystal Palmer, courted the production well enough in 2011 that executive producer John Melfi told her in an email that he couldn’t imagine filming the series outside of the D.C. area. But after the District government couldn’t meet Melfi’s request for $3.5 million in tax credits, most of the production remained in Baltimore.
As the motorcade filming neared, though, both the show’s production team and the film office faced a problem.
For the shot, the film crew wanted District police cars in the motorcade for Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s vice-presidential character. The fact that MPD cars don’t take the lead in executive branch motorcades didn’t bother producers, but apparently it did bug Chief Cathy Lanier, who decided that she didn’t want her department’s cars or officers used. (Joseph Martin, a location scout who offered to help the House of Cards team craft their response to MPD’s policy, speculated that Lanier was spooked by filming after an MPD car that wasn’t involved in filming a 2010 Transformers shoot drove onto the set and was hit by Autobot Bumblebee.)
House of Cards producers went back and forth with MPD brass the day of the shoot, trying to wheedle the police cars into the production. Although MPD cars had been used in previous film productions, the shoot eventually had to be canceled after the department wouldn’t budge. Baltimore arranged the scene there instead.
“This has cost the production company an enormous inconvenience and a lot of money,” location manager Carol Flaisher emailed Palmer. “This will certainly change the attitude of Producers filming in Washington, DC.”
Flaisher’s email, like the rest of the emails in this story, were obtained by LL through a Freedom of Information Act request.
House of Cards had caused headaches for city officials before. In 2012, a film crew for the series secured filming rights on Pennsylvania Avenue, only to discover that the District had double-booked the spot by promising it to a crew looking to film a charity walk for California-based cancer treatment center City of Hope. Fictional inside-the-Beltway intrigue won out, the charity’s film crew moved, and House of Cards’ production company offered $7,000 as compensation. City officials played mediator as Megyn Byrnes, a miffed events director for City of Hope, shot back that $7,000 wasn’t nearly enough. (Byrnes didn’t respond to LL’s question about how much money it eventually received, if any.)
Now, the city’s film office and House of Cards were facing another problem that could cost the production thousands of dollars. After reaching an impasse with MPD over the motorcade, an unhappy Palmer emailed her deputies that the motorcade wouldn’t happen, after all.
“I am on 3rd and Pennsylvania Avenue trying to stay positive and upbeat,” Palmer wrote. “Yet knowing in the mind [sic] that they may never come again….”
Palmer, now at the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, referred questions about her time at the film office to a DMPED spokeswoman.
While the House of Cards film shoot was called off, the fight over it continued in the District. On Aug. 9, House of Cards producer Iain Paterson complained to Palmer that the canceled motorcade was “very disconcerting.”
It looked like another loss for the District’s Hollywood outreach program which, despite the popularity of shows ostensibly “set” in the city, struggles to compete for productions with states offering more lucrative film benefits. After meeting with MPD officials, Palmer emailed Lanier on Aug. 20 to tell her that she understood her refusal to let D.C. police cars be used in faux motorcades, but she wasn’t happy about it.
“As a result of this new policy, film and television producers will think twice before deciding to film in the District,” Palmer wrote. “Why? In a word, ‘Bureaucracy.’”
Lanier wasn’t swayed. Writing back to Palmer, Lanier told her that the policy on not using officers or cars was still in place.
News of the motorcade spat broke on Aug. 21, when the Washington Business Journal’s Michael Neibauer published an article on the canceled motorcade. A follow-up story the next day featured mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro, who said the film office “may have dropped the ball.”
Ribeiro’s jab provoked moans from Palmer’s staff. Film office spokeswoman Leslie Green emailed Ribeiro, demanding to know where he got the idea that they “dropped the ball.”
“Not Crystal’s finest hour,” Palmer deputy Herbert Niles wrote after the second story ran, to a person whose name was redacted in LL’s FOIA results. “The Mayor’s spokesman threw Crystal under the bus. In a she said/she said situation, you know the mayor will favor the wildly popular Chief Lanier over Crystal.”
Palmer took her case to the mayor.
“I believe that Mr. Ribeiro’s statement is an extremely unfair characterization of my work and the work of the film office,” Palmer wrote to Gray. “It has the potential to seriously undermine our ability to attract any significant filming in the future.”
LL’s FOIA request doesn’t include any response from Gray. Niles, meanwhile, sent the unflattering story out to a few more people. “Not Crystal’s finest hour,” he wrote to Jenifer Boss, a business development official at DMPED. “When we get a chance to speak next I can tell you about how this played out (and how it could have been avoided).”
Niles even pitched the idea of making nice with Lanier. In an email to a person whose name was also redacted from the documents provided to LL, Niles considered making a “peace offering” to the chief—“once I am more ‘independent’ of crystal.”
Niles declined to discuss the emails on the record.
After Neibauer’s stories came out, House of Cards employees considered sending an open letter to reporters and councilmembers complaining that the canceled shoot had cost the city economic activity. Their internal email chain was eventually forwarded to Palmer.
“Maybe the military takeover in Egypt went to Lanier’s head and she thought she could do it too,” cracked one.
But location manager Patrick Burn wasn’t having it. An open letter, he wrote, would only make it more difficult to work with D.C. “So the article does nothing for our cause to make things better, and it stirred up a political hornets nest inside the corrupt and dysfunctional DC government,” Burn wrote. (Burn declined to comment to LL, citing his need to keep working with the District on film shoots.)
House of Cards eventually returned for the motorcade shoot in October, swapping in prop cars for the actual MPD cars the production originally wanted. According to MPD spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump, the ban on using officers and police cars in film shoots remains.
At least publicly, Hollywood doesn’t mind. DMPED spokeswoman Chanda Washington says MPD’s policy hasn’t affected the city’s ability to attract productions. Location manager Flaisher, once so upset about the botched motorcade, emails LL to say that “it all ended well.”
Palmer’s stint at the film office, though, didn’t end so swimmingly. In October, DMPED head Victor Hoskins, whose office oversees MPTD, announced that she was being moved to his agency. Washington declines to say if the motorcade kerfuffle played into her exit. Niles replaced Palmer as the interim director, holding the post until filmmaker Pierre Bagley took over last February.
LL’s advice for Bagley: Watch out for motorcades.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, the article originally identified Joseph Martin as involved in the House of Cards location planning. In fact, he offered to help the location team’s response to the District government after the motorcade plans were quashed.
Also, a description of a 2010 crash involving an MPD vehicle and a Transformers vehicle has been updated with additional details.