Lights, Camera, Some Action on Columbus' Hollywood Dreams

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Filming for "I Am Wrath" on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse

Hollywood is synonymous with many things-wealth, celebrities and, most of all, movies. But as LA becomes only more expensive, film productions have migrated across the U.S. and Canada to states offering competitive tax breaks for filmmakers. Cities such as Atlanta have capitalized on that movement and fashioned themselves into mini-film-production hubs, and city leaders here are starting to wonder, why not Columbus?

The question seems especially relevant after Columbus hosted the cast and crew of John Travolta's upcoming film "I Am Wrath" this spring. Columbus is also set to gain its own high-tech post-production space next month when the Ohio Film Group, a private production company, opens on the campus of the Columbus College of Art and Design. The company has agreed to integrate students into its operations through curriculum, internships and even post-graduation employment.

With a celebrity-backed film under its belt and a new production company that plans to bring in seasoned industry professionals, it seems Columbus' nascent film industry is finally gaining momentum. In recent years, Mayor Michael B. Coleman and former Greater Columbus Film Commission (aka Film Columbus) director Thomas McClure have worked to market Columbus as a destination for film productions. But with the mayor stepping down and McClure's resignation earlier this year, will we be able to attract more major productions, or will "I Am Wrath" become little more than a sensational anomaly?

Columbus-and the rest of the state-does have the advantage of a competitive motion picture tax credit. Projects filming in Ohio that spend a minimum of $300,000 can receive a refund of up to 35 percent. But, according to Ohio Film Office records, Columbus still lags far behind Cleveland and Cincinnati, with an estimated $966,215 spent on film projects eligible for the credit in 2014, versus Cincinnati's $7.5 million and Cleveland's $4.3 million.

Columbus struggles in part because it lacks infrastructure. "We're in a catch-22 right now because we need to build our crew base, but to do that we need productions to come here," says John Daugherty, the new executive director ofFilm Columbus. It can be tough to lure big productions out of Hollywood, and Daugherty and Chris Hamel, president of the Film Columbus board of directors and of the Gateway Film Center, agree the city should focus on smaller local films to help provide the relatively steady employment needed to cultivate an experienced pool of professionals. "It will be a slow process building that up," Daugherty adds. "It could take five years or more."

Post-production is another important piece of the employment puzzle. Both Ohio State University and CCAD have programs focused on animation and cinematic arts, but most of those graduates leave for Los Angeles or New York. "There's a lot of talented kids coming out of area schools, and we wanted to find a way to keep them here," says Ohio Film Group founder and president Len Hartman. "Post-production work can be done anywhere, and people will come to you. We think that's the first step in creating an entertainment industry that keeps people employed."

Right now, there's an abundance of optimism about growing a film industry in Columbus. Whether that translates into results remains to be seen, but local supporters see a big potential payoff in terms of economic and cultural impact. "We all know that Columbus is trying to figure out its identity," says Jason Tostevin, filmmaker and vice president of marketing and communications for the Gateway. "Being a film city is a cool, sexy identity that's there for the taking if we want it."