News & Politics

Bad Money, Bad Movies: Analysis Shows DC’s Film Incentive Program Was Managed Poorly

It's as tough as ever to make a movie or TV show in DC, but a new study says that when the city was funding film production, it wasn't doing it well.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards, a show about Washington that is made in Baltimore. Photograph by Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix.

James L. Brooks’s 2010 romantic comedy How Do You Know was a critical and commercial bomb when it thudded into movie theaters. And according to a new analysis of DC’s film incentive program, it was just as much of a dud for city coffers.

The producers of How Do You Know, in which Owen Wilson plays a lovelorn Washington Nationals pitcher caught up with Reese Witherspoon, received $2 million from the DC government in exchange for spending some of the shoot here. But according to an economic review first reported by WAMU, only $1.5 million of that was actually spent in DC.

Moreover, WAMU reports that of ever dollar the District spent on attracting film production between 2007 and 2009, it got back only 23 cents in economic activity.

Cities and states that seek to attract film and television productions often create tax incentive and rebate programs to lure in producers looking to save costs. Programs exist in 41 states and, in addition to encouraging stargazing, give mayors and governors economic statistics to tout. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell boasted last year that his state got a $400 million economic bounce from the film industry in 2011, driven largely by the filming of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Maryland, meanwhile, recently tripled the value of its incentive program to $22.5 million, ensuring that it will continue to be the home of television series like Veep and House of Cards.

Even though those two programs are set in DC, they film in Baltimore because it has been a few years since DC has attempted to be competitive in reeling in movies and TV shows. The city’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, which oversees the incentive program, likes to boast about the number of productions that do still come here, but many of those visits occur simply to collect establishing shots of the DC skyline instead of meaty, script-driven scenes.

As reported in the February 2012 issue of Washingtonian, the producers of House of Cards asked DC for $3.5 million to pay for expenses such as hiring city residents to work on the show and to put up visiting cast and crew members at local hotels. In exchange, the show would have spent $9 million here. But the film office did not have $3.5 million to give, so for Netflix subscribers binge-watching their way through House of Cards, outside of a few skyline shots, the role of Washington is portrayed by Baltimore.

Even though Crystal Palmer, the film office’s director, has told the DC Council that the city is at a disadvantage, DC’s film incentive program has been unfunded since the 2011 fiscal year. And it is not scheduled to be replenished in the 2014 fiscal calendar, which begins Oct. 1.

Finding new money for the incentive program is something of a pet project for DC Council member Vincent Orange, whose campaigns have received many contributions from a few shadowy Hollywood figures. Late last year, Orange introduced legislation that would have restored film incentive funding by skimming a one percent tax off DC government construction grants. The bill was unsurprisingly dismissed by real estate executives and by Victor Hoskins, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

The money spent on How Do You Know was authorized by Kathy Hollinger, who ran the film office under then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, who fired Palmer when he came into office. (Her first run started in the mid-1980s.) Hollinger, who is now the president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, was unavailable for comment. Her name, however, does appear under a “Special Thanks” header in the credits on How Do You Know.

While the outlook for bringing serious film production back into DC is as dismal as ever, Orange is still pursuing the issue. His chief of staff, James Brown, tells Washingtonian that Orange’s colleagues on the Council have not heard the last of his desire to rebuild what appears to have been an irresponsibly managed incentive program.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.