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It’s been a District complaint for years now: When a movie is “set in Washington,” in all likelihood most of the scenes are actually shot somewhere else, like Toronto, or Charlotte, or Baltimore. There are lots of reasons for that. A big one is the fact that D.C. just doesn’t compete in the subsidy game; surrounding jurisdictions just have more cash to throw at producers, and no amount of Hollywood junketing will help. The other one is the fact that many of the areas filmmakers most want to shoot—-iconic vistas like the Washington Monument and the White House—-are the most closely policed (and replicated easily enough in a studio somewhere far away).
Up until last month, even though the Capitol steps were off limits to filmmakers along with the rest of the public, it was still possible to get a shot of the dome from the Grant Memorial, just west of it. And indeed, most movies did the shot, given that it was the easiest way to get that straight-out-of-Washington feeling.
“Virtually every single project, whether it’s a TV project or a movie, shoots at Grant statue,” says Jonathan Zurer, a local producer who made an annual trip to the site when working on The West Wing in the early 2000s. “If you come to D.C. from L.A., you’re coming to D.C. because you want to say ‘hey we shot in D.C., and here’s the proof.”
Now, Zurer and other D.C. location managers are worried that one key scene will be off limits forever, because of a security-related jurisdictional shift: A new omnibus spending bill working its way through Congress transfers Union Square, an 11-acre chunk of the Mall’s eastern end, from National Park Service oversight to the Architect of the Capitol. Goodness knows the Park Service has its issues. But historically, along with protections for expression of free speech, Park Service oversight has also allowed filmmakers access to key sites. The Architect of the Capitol, on the other hand, doesn’t grant permits for commercial filming other than news cameras, period.
“At a certain point, we stopped asking, because they made it very clear that they don’t want it,” Zurer says. That could be the last straw for any number of productions that find nothing else in Washington to be particularly indispensable—-Baltimore’s got pretty much everything else we do, after all, and it’s cheaper.
When he read about the shift, Zurer and friends reached out to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and D.C. Film Office director Crystal Palmer, who promised to see what could be done. I’ve asked the Architect of the Capitol’s people whether they’ll be willing to make an exception to their anti-filming rules for Union Square, and will update if they say anything of note.
Meanwhile, I’m planning to write more about how factors beyond local government control—-including union contracts!—-get in the way of a real film industry in D.C. If you’ve got knowledge, do share.