News & Politics

Why Movies and TV Shows Set in DC Aren’t Usually Filmed in DC

Remember Homeland’s “Farragut Station”? It looks nothing like either of Metro’s two Farragut stops. But it’s not because producers are lazy.

Homeland’s “Farragut Station” (shown) looks nothing like either of Metro’s two Farragut stops. Photograph of Homeland by Susan Stabley/

An episode of the first season of Showtime’s Homeland involved a meeting in “Farragut Square.” Local fans winced because, apart from grass and benches, it wasn’t remotely DC’s Farragut Square. What happened? It’s simple. Though intensely of and about Washington, Homeland is shot mostly in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Would we rather shoot in DC? You bet,” says co–executive producer Alex Gansa. But filming in Washington is expensive and complicated.

DC’s film-office chief, Crystal Palmer, doesn’t disagree—until recently, the District government hasn’t put much effort into attracting productions. That means lots of other locales stand in for DC—Maryland especially: Dave, Head of State, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, St. Elmo’s Fire, and Absolute Power, to name a few, all used Maryland sites as stand-ins for the District.

“For DC to compete with the state of Maryland is like David and Goliath,” Palmer says. She cites the Netflix series House of Cards, which will shoot for a number of weeks this year: The production wanted $3.5 million from the city in “qualified expenses,” a form of underwriting to help pay for hiring DC residents and using DC production facilities, hotels, and restaurants. In return, the show expected to spend $9 million in the District over three months.

“We didn’t have the funding in place,” Palmer says, and the deal fell through. Maryland offered $8 million to $11 million of those qualified expenses, and the production opted to shoot there for seven to eight months, with comparable returns that could at least double the investment.

DC hasn’t had an infusion of money into its film fund since 2007. A total of $1.6 million was used to attract three films—National Treasure 2, State of Play, and How Do You Know. The fund was depleted by 2009.

Yet even if funding is secured, filming in DC isn’t a cakewalk—the District is filled with jurisdictional and permitting hurdles. Post-9/11 security has made federal agencies harder to deal with, and each controls its own space with separate rules. Director James L. Brooks, who made two DC movies—Broadcast News in 1986 and How Do You Know in 2009—says the District is “the most difficult” city to work in. “I shot all of Broadcast News there, and it was glorious,” he says. By 2009 it was much harder. He shot for three weeks and had to adjust his filming almost block by block in the city.

Today Palmer and DC deputy mayor Victor Hoskins want to make Washington competitive—Hoskins has a mission to boost economic development, so the duo are having new meetings with the National Park Service, Capitol, Library of Congress, and other federal bodies to discuss easing restrictions.

Any change would be good news for Gansa, who co–executive produced another Washington-based hit, TV’s 24, which staged half of its DC scenes with the help of computer graphics. (“You can put Jack Bauer on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and it looks terrific,” he says.) He’d like to bring Homelandhere when it resumes shooting in May, even if only for two weeks.

Brooks won’t give up, either: “I love the city. Everything is good except the bureaucracy.”

This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.