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Crystal Palmer is a difficult woman to reach—it’s “pilot season,” after all. As the director of the District’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, she’s been booked solid all month: The city’s budgeting process hasn’t begun; aspiring TV productions are in town shooting their debut episodes in hopes of winning a prime time slot next fall; she’s occupied helping film crews scout locations.
The District’s film office opened in 1979, and beginning in 1986, Palmer led the agency for 22 years—until she was sacked in 2008 by then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. She returned to the job last month with the inauguration of Vincent Gray, but her reinstatement wasn’t without its detractors. Several members of the local film community reacted with charges of cronyism—Palmer and the mayor go way back; she’s married to former D.C. Councilmember Harold Brazil—and trepidation that progress made by Kathy Hollinger, Fenty’s choice for the director’s chair, would be undone.
Much of the instant feedback to the December announcement that Palmer was returning to the film office was scathing, especially in online comments. A few members of the local film scene were more sparing, but by no means guarded, in their skepticism. Jon Gann, who runs the DC Film Alliance and DC Shorts Film Festival, told TBD.com that Palmer’s rehiring prompted e-mails from “people who are concerned about the future of the [film] industry in D.C.” Joe Flood, a screenwriter, tweeted “undoing reform: Kathy Hollinger out of the DC Film Office and Crystal Palmer (who worked there for 23 years!) back in #cronyism.”
So what distinguished Hollinger’s tenure helming the film office from Palmer’s? And perhaps more pressing: Who’s afraid of Crystal Palmer?
The answers to both questions have a lot to do with the ways the film office balances its work with flush out-of-town productions that shoot on location here, and with the lower-to-the-ground community of D.C.-based filmmakers and festivals.
For his part, Gann was reticent to expand on his earlier comments, writing in an e-mail that he hopes the film office “continue[s] some of the programs to involve local residents, train [production assistants] and work with more local organizations.”
Palmer expressed a desire to keep the local film community in focus, though very much in the context of connecting homegrown filmmakers to the high-dollar Hollywood operations she is tasked with bringing in. But she said she’s aware that while plenty of out-of-town companies shoot here, most District residents are not superhuman secret agents, giant shapeshifting robots, or fame-seeking housewives. “The talent base is comparable to New York and L.A. More and more productions are using local talent in key positions,” Palmer told me. “The challenge is to get our story out.”
When I met up with Flood, who by day works as a contractor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it became apparent that his real criticism wasn’t about cronyism, but of access. D.C.’s film community functions largely apart from the city film office, but its most public output—festivals like DC Shorts and the 48 Hour Film Project, for example—enjoy a civic boost when they can get it, Flood said. This, he added, was one of the highlights of Hollinger’s brief tenure.
“She made more of an effort to meet people and be connected with the local film community, including aspiring filmmakers,” Flood said, mentioning run-ins with Hollinger at DC Shorts and other events. He said he has never met Palmer.
But Lindsey Christian, a filmmaker from Shepherd Park, found Palmer to be a bit more engaging. Palmer showed up to the premiere of Christian’s debut feature, Jazz in the Diamond District, at Filmfest DC in 2008. Still, Christian usually found the Motion Picture and Television Development office to be aloof to area productions. “It’s just not visible to local productions for any real reason,” Christian told me. “But keeping in touch is something they should do.” But Christian gave the office under both Hollinger and Palmer high marks for delivering filming permits and accommodations like street closures and Metrobus reroutes.
Visitors from the West Coast tend to agree. Of the 320 productions that filmed here in Fiscal Year 2010—Hollinger’s second full year on the job—90 percent rated the District “satisfactory” or “very satisfactory” as a shooting location in the film office’s FY2010 Performance Accountability Report.
But customer approval isn’t the only metric the film office goes by, and Hollinger, who did not respond to interview requests, didn’t always make it rain. The same report showed only $12.5 million in local expenditures by the film industry in FY2010, well short of the $20 million goal and less than half of the $26 million raked in during the previous fiscal year. Revenues for Palmer’s first stint running the film office were not readily available, though the office said that 2011 is quickly outstripping 2010. Since Jan. 1, the film office reported approximately $4.6 million spent by film productions in the District—roughly three times as much as the $1.5 million over the same period last year.
Attracting film productions can be cutthroat at times, with tax credits and other financial incentives the bargaining chips. The District offers a 42-percent rebate on taxable production expenditures, 30 percent on local personnel, and 50 percent back for job training. But Virginia recently expanded its Motion Picture Opportunity Fund from $200,000 to $2 million, with $2.5 million in tax credits to boot. And while Maryland’s incentive program is leaner now than in the salad days of The Wire, it still draws productions away from D.C. Veep, an HBO pilot starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a female vice president, is collecting a few location shots in Washington, but will do the bulk of its filming in Baltimore.
But Palmer brought up Veep as enthusiastically as any other show when mentioning the fledgling TV projects she’s working with right now. Besides Veep, Palmer talked about Potomac Fever, an upcoming reality series produced by Rob Lowe; Georgetown, a primetime soap opera by The O.C. and Gossip Girl creator Josh Schwartz; and an untitled project by Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Shonda Rhimes. Blockbuster movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which spent a week in D.C. last fall, may be the attention-getters, but television is the bread and butter. Palmer estimated that The West Wing, a Los Angeles-based production that dropped in intermittently for establishment shots and occasional outdoor scenes, pumped as much as $20 million into the local economy over its seven-season run, which ended in 2006.
Still, the question of local engagement remains. Hollinger was better known to area filmmakers during her brief tenure than Palmer was in her first 23 years. The film office was tight-lipped about the reasons behind Fenty’s 2008 decision to replace Palmer, but a look at Hollinger’s work history gives some indication. Like Michelle Rhee and Gabe Klein, Hollinger was one of the Fenty administration’s government outsiders—she spent nearly six years at Comcast as its senior director of external affairs in D.C. A veteran like Palmer with over two decades in government wasn’t the last mayor’s style. Though her financial record was mixed, the departmental progress reports from Hollinger’s two years on the job show upticks in interaction with the local film community. But when Gray started putting his team together, Hollinger was one of the first to be replaced.
“Mayor Gray appointed Palmer to head the office because of her talent and expertise in the area of motion picture and television development,” the mayor’s office said in an e-mail. Film office spokeswoman Leslie Green put it more boldly: “Mayor Gray wanted Crystal to finish what she started.” Leslie Green is the daughter of Lorraine Green, one of Gray’s closest friends and advisers.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery