Jump cut to 2002. Erie County Executive Joel Giambra tells reporters that when he was on the City Of Buffalo Common Council, he had visions of a Buffalo Film Commission. The rise of local film commissions since Giambras youthful political years has every region in the country thinking it can be Hollywood for a day, a week, or maybe even a few months. As County Executive, Giambra was determined to inaugurate an area film commission. Working with the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise (a job development and marketing entity funded partially by Erie County and New York State with some private monies included) and the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau, he got his wish. With $150,000 of county taxpayer seed money, the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission was born. A private-public co-venture, it was to operate out of the BNEs offices at 665 Main Street in downtown Buffalo, accountable to Giambras administration.
A director was hired, the aforementioned Mark Stricklin. He had worked for or had run film commissions in Oregon, Alabama, and Wilmington, North Carolina. That Stricklin knew very little about the Western New York areas assets its people, architecture, production facilities (or lack thereof) didnt seem to be a problem to the group that approved his hiring. He had credentials that impressed.
Since Stricklins arrival on the scene nearly two years ago, there have been no major studio productions in Western New York for which he can claim credit. Some context is necessary. There are nearly 200 state, regional, and local film commissions in the U.S., over 300 total around the world, all existing to promote their respective communities. New York State has a Film Commission, and there are six regional commissions: Buffalo Niagara, Rochester Finger Lakes, Capital Saratoga, New York City, Nassau County, and Yonkers. Its an insular world. Film commissioners know each other. They protect each others reputations and watch each others backs. They move in the same circles, go to the same conventions, and have what some see as a relatively cushy, often high-paying job. There are terrific perks, not the least of which is worldwide travel. They even have their own association of film commissioners. Of course, since the task is to get films shot in their communities, some secrets are kept. The main problem for film commissioners is that the locals dont think anything is being done unless they fall over movie stars at the neighborhood brew pub. Every film commissioner to whom I spoke noted that problem. Taxpayers demand bang for their buck.
Basically, the job of these commissions is to highlight their areas benefits. Most film commissions consist of one or two persons, often only a director and a secretary. Some film commissions are private enterprises; some are government funded. The task is to let filmmakers (studios, production companies, etc.) interested in shooting movies, television series, documentaries, commercials, industrial films in a specific area know what that city, region, or state has to offer. It can be something as simple as the local acting talent pool, to the availability of production equipment, to clearing red tape for permits, to something as complex as financial incentives. Until recently, no states offered tax breaks to production companies. Two recent legislative moves in New Mexico and Louisiana have altered the landscape. Both states are willing to spend large amounts of money and offer tax windfalls to get studios to shoot a movie in their state. Across the border, Canada virtually throws money in the direction of Hollywood, an act that has seen film production mushroom.
New Mexico, Louisiana, and Canada see film production as jobs creation programs. In California, where moviemaking is essentially headquartered, this battle for the filmmaking dollar is seen as fiercely competitive. Although its new governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is an actor and producer, he has no current plans to offer tax breaks to shoot in his home state. Studios and production companies select locations for their movies based primarily on budgetary considerations. However, star and director and even producer egos being what they are, its not unheard of to take a movie shoot to Palermo or Paris or Prague because someone connected to the film thinks itd be fun to shoot anywhere but Los Angeles. Theres nothing like a free trip to Rome or even Romania (where the American-themed Cold Mountain was shot) to stroke an ego.
In the United States, the outsourcing of jobs is a contentious presidential campaign issue. For some reason, most people dont consider movie jobs heading across the border or across an ocean as part and parcel of the larger problem, but it is. In the U.S. Senate, legislation has been debated for years about keeping moviemaking in the United States. Not even actor turned president Ronald Reagan succeeded in compelling studios to shoot in the States. Currently in the Senate, S1637, a jobs bill, is being debated. It includes tax breaks and financial incentives to shoot movies in good old America. It might pass, but whether or not the provisions relating to moviemaking survive is anybodys guess. Ward Emling, director of the Mississippi Film Office, told me that all movie shoots are purely business decisions. Its all about the cost of making the film.
There has been a huge outcry within the past few weeks over director Ron Howards decision to shoot Cinderella Man in Toronto. The movie is about famed American boxer James J. Braddock and stars Russell Crowe (as Braddock), Rene Zellweger, Craig Bierko, and Paul Giamatti. In the U.S. Congress, Rep. Diane Watson and 26 other members wrote a letter on April 5 to MPAA boss Jack Valenti complaining about the shoot. It was as if Mr. Apple Pie himself, the beloved Opie, had turned against his own country. The letter stated that while we applaud the effort by Universal Studios to tell the triumphant story of James J. Braddock one of our nations greatest boxing heroes, we are deeply concerned about the hundreds of U.S. jobs affected. Valenti was quoted as saying that the decision was influenced by one compelling advantage. That advantage? Only Torontos Maple Leaf Gardens could stand in for New York Citys Depression-era Madison Square Gardens. Howard and his team began shooting Cinderella Man in Toronto April 19. The truth of the matter is that Howard can hardly be blamed. Hes made 16 other movies in the U.S., many of them location shoots around the country.
Im sure something in the above paragraph jumped out at you astute readers. Depression-era arena? What about right here in Buffalo? The city itself has streets that could pass for early twentieth century Manhattan, and War Memorial Auditorium is a Depression-era architects dream. Which brings us full circle. Did the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission and its director drop the ball? Theres a serious wall of silence about this project at Imagine Entertainment (Howards production company) and in film commission circles. One person closely connected to Cinderella Man told me under condition of anonymity that Buffalo was never really seriously considered. There was a list of cities under serious consideration, places like Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Kansas City for example. Buffalo never made the short list. Ironically, Howard has had positive thoughts about Buffalo. In late 1993, he conducted a secret test screening of the movie he had directed entitled The Paper. Only one local media or newspaper outlet even knew he was in town, WIVB-TV. Sources told me about the screening, and I scored an exclusive interview with Howard for my station.
Again, some context is in order. The Jim Carrey star vehicle Bruce Almighty did some background shooting in Buffalo, but the major portion of the production was shot in California. Although he was in charge of the local film commission at the time, Bruce Almighty is a movie for which Stricklin cannot claim credit because the decision to use Buffalo as a back-drop had been made regardless of whether or not there even was a local film commission. Carrey grew up in the Toronto area and recalled his days watching Buffalo television and thought it would be fun to memorialize his youth on-screen. Again, star power. James D. Brubaker, president of physical production for Universal Pictures, a man whos been in the business for decades and knows his way around a movie set, told me he had high praise for Mary Summers, County Executive Giambra, his executive assistant Tim Clark, and Pat Kaufman, president of the New York State Film Commission, all of whom worked to bring the project to fruition. Unfortunately, Summers is no longer with the BCVB.
However, regarding the issue of Cinderella Man, Kaufman is decidedly prickly. In fact, she was downright shrill and condescending. Both the movie and the resulting negative publicity have irritated a lot of people. From her Manhattan office, she exploded at me when I telephoned to ask about whether or not Buffalo was ever considered for the shoot. Shrieking at the top of her lungs, she said: IT BELONGED IN NEW YORK CITY. But when that proved not to be feasible from a budgetary sense or amenable to Imagine Entertainment, she noted that she was aware of The Aud and claimed she advised Imagine of its existence. Clearly, Buffalo is in for the fight of its life if it has to compete with New York City for movie productions. Unless Buffalo is specifically wanted for a location, does anybody doubt that New York will get the whole loaf while Buffalo gets the crumbs?
For his part, Stricklin was clueless as to the fuss over the Cinderella Man shoot. He had not heard of Rep. Watsons letter, the Congressional appeals, or the controversy. A phlegmatic sort, Stricklin refused to answer a number of key questions about the success of the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission. He did build upon his previous pronouncements that people have to realize that simply because they arent seeing movie stars, he isnt doing his job. But is he doing his job? He initially refused to state his budget or his salary, advising me that I should ask County officials for that information. Calls to the County had been made before talking to Stricklin, but the only return calls were from staffers asking me to clarify my questions. Stricklin approached our interview contentiously, claiming; I know where youre going with this. Obviously, others have challenged the money being spent on a film commission, especially since no concrete results are visible. Again, that old star power bugaboo.
However, by the end of the interview Stricklin did say that his salary was in the high 60s and his yearly budget was $165,000. He has no staff and has been at his Buffalo post since July 1, 2002. Stricklins personal web page notes that he brings over 16 years of film commission/management experience to the Buffalo Niagara region. His efforts have resulted in over $955 million in revenue for Buffalo, Oregon, Wilmington (NC), and Alabama from 1987 to 2003 through the recruitment of over 280 productions. Stricklin served as Director of the Wilmington (NC) Regional Film Commission for almost six years and was instrumental in the start-up of the organization. Admittedly, Buffalos share of the Stricklin pie is very, very small. It should also be noted that in 1993, when he and others organized the Wilmington Film Commission, yearly film and television production revenues in that region were already at $504-million. As commissioner, Stricklin oversaw a dramatic drop in production revenues to around $230-million just before he left in 1999.
Stricklin has publicly stated that he has had success in bringing commercials and independent movies to the Buffalo region. When asked about this, he refused to provide a list of commercials or independent movies that have been shot in WNY as a result of his efforts as film commissioner. Here is what he said: Where are you going with this? I just dont like the tone of this call. When I reiterated that he had said that commercials and films had been shot here and asked again if he could give me some titles and some names of commercials, he replied: weve worked on over a hundred different projects. Weve completed over fifty projects. Asked again if he could provide some titles and names of commercials, Stricklin refused, uttering a firm no. Later in the interview, I asked him again about commercials and indie films, he haltingly mentioned something about a national commercial for Chevrolet for which he took credit.
The reply to a direct question about his efforts to land Cinderella Man in Buffalo was greeted with a very long silence. Movies can take years, even decades, to go from idea to the screen. In a long slow dance of an answer, Stricklin finally did say that he was familiar with, and had done location plans for, an earlier version of Cinderella Man when he was at Wilmington. But that was then, and this is now.
Commenting on Stricklins stint at film commission work in Oregon, a motion picture executive in Los Angeles did not have high praise. Regarding filming on location, he noted that there was a vast gulf between what studios are willing to pay to shoot in a locale and what local entities expect them to pay. Price gouging does not endear Hollywood to anyones heart. No helicopter needed for a shot thats going to last perhaps a minute of screen time is worth paying $25,000 for. Its a schmoozing kind of world and egos are huge and budgets are tight. Those millions of dollars that studios spend on making movies would be helpful to any communitys bottom line. But service is a two-way street. One studio executive told the Buffalo Alternative Press that he specifically advised Giambra not to hire the peripatetic Stricklin.
The bottom line is that Buffalo has about as much chance at getting a major studio production as any place on the planet. It could happen. But, the process is as much about budgets as it is about location needs. Just because a novels set in Buffalo doesnt mean it will be shot in Buffalo. What works is salesmanship. Film commissioners need to be firebrands. They have to display a little showmanship. Its a glitzy business. They must be aware of every movie on the slate, every location need, every screenplay in turnaround, every production in play. And this information is definitely available in trade publications and elsewhere. Theyve got to have contacts in the business who they can call and who are eager to call them and work with them. Even making a movie is now part of the can of worms called the global economy. Film commissioners must be one of the most proactive people around. They have to seek the work. Based on conversations with people in the business in Los Angeles, the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission needs to do a better job. Mary Summers had more success than Mark Stricklin.
Theres no denying that Buffalo has assets. After years of reviewing movies and interviewing movie stars, directors, and producers, I can tell you that any film can be shot anywhere. Thats the magic of the movies. There are dynamic vistas here and superb actors and actresses. But Buffalo also has failings that need to be overcome. There isnt a lot of equipment necessary for shooting major films here. Components have to be trucked in from New York. Empty buildings are a dime a dozen, but at least one sound stage may need to be constructed. 35mm film lab work and sound processing need to be done in state-of-the-art facilities.
But perhaps most vital of all is that the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission needs to get out from under New York Citys shadow. The clubby film commission atmosphere also doesnt help. Ms. Kaufman comes across as a demon who will scarf up everything for New York City first. Stricklin needs to give Kaufman marching orders, not the other way around. She is not his boss. He is his own boss. He needs to fight for Buffalo tooth and nail. The moneys there. The scripts are there. Its not just about whats available. All movies dont get made in Canada or the Czech Republic. Many are shot across the United States. A great film commissioner can convince a studio executive that a movie shoot must come to their town. At studio headquarters, Buffalo must be made to seem like the perfect economical place to be. Thats how Hollywood works.
By Michael Calleri
ALT Movie Editor
Who is Mark Stricklin and why should you care about him? In the movies, theres something called the backstory, the unseen details leading up to whats actually going on in the screenplay. So, a little backstory is in order. In 1983, searching for a city in which to film The Natural, the moviemaking team became sold on Buffalo when a city official drove production designer Mel Bourne through the gates of War Memorial Stadium at Jefferson and Best streets and right onto the playing field.