- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2001

It takes permits from three government agencies to film a television series in front of the U.S. Capitol. And it takes a producer with a lot of Washington savvy to secure those permits.

Fortunately for Hollywood, Joseph A. Becker has savvy to spare.

Mr. Becker runs ThinkFilm Inc., a D.C. company that helps produce movies and television shows that film in Washington, including NBC's "The West Wing." It is one of the few local production houses that does entertainment work; most companies rely on revenue from documentaries and political advertising.

"We've been able to carve out a nice niche for ourselves," says Mr. Becker.

ThinkFilm is small. It generates about $5 million in annual revenue and has only three permanent full-time employees, although its payroll balloons to 300 including cameramen, makeup artists and extras when "The West Wing" comes to town.

The company is at the forefront of Washington's burgeoning production industry, which generates between $40 million and $50 million annually, according to the city. Most of the money is spent on documentary production, but the more-lucrative movies and TV shows are beginning to consume a bigger piece of the pie.

Three shows set in Washington will debut on the broadcast networks next season. Like "The West Wing" and prime time's other D.C. drama, "The District," the new programs will be filmed primarily in Hollywood.

At least two of the new shows "The Court," an ABC drama starring Sally Field as a Supreme Court justice, and CBS' "The Agency," about the inner workings of the CIA are expected to film occasionally in the District, according to the networks.

"The West Wing" is scheduled to make four trips to Washington next season. The producers of "The District" plan at least one major shoot in town.

Feature filmmaking is also rising in the District.

More than 20 movies have been shot in the city since 1997, including 1998's "Deep Impact" and this year's "Along Came a Spider." Several more will be filmed in the District this year, including "Minority Report," a Steven Spielberg flick that is scheduled to begin production this month.

But the District's film scene is a shadow of what takes place in areas like North Carolina, where 19 movies were shot last year alone.

The city's $400,000 annual film budget also pales when compared to what its neighbors spend. Maryland has an annual film budget of $1.2 million; Virginia's budget is $800,000. Most of the money is spent on advertisements in trade magazines and other marketing materials.

But the District is making strides, says Crystal Palmer, director of the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development.

"We seem to get more business every year… . 'The West Wing' has helped show the city can secure and sustain these types of productions," she says.

Ready for their close-up

ThinkFilm and the other local companies in the movie and TV business are growing up with Washington's film industry.

Mr. Becker founded his company in 1992, and originally ran it from a desk in his infant daughter's nursery. He took on two partners in 1994, eventually moving the company to downtown Washington.

Over the years, ThinkFilm has worked on movies like "Armageddon" and the Watergate satire "Dick." It landed "The West Wing" when the show's producers came to the District to film its pilot episode three years ago.

"The show is unique because it provides a steady, constant stream of revenue for us. We know they will come here for a few days four times a year to shoot," Mr. Becker says.

Most movies and TV shows only fly cast members, producers and directors into the District for location shooting. Local companies like ThinkFilm take care of the rest, including securing permits, hiring crew members and renting camera and lighting equipment.

"This is one-stop shopping. We do it all," says Stephanie Antosca, one of Mr. Becker's ThinkFilm partners.

"West Wing" producer Llewellyn Wells says he uses ThinkFilm's services because the company knows Washington's ins and outs.

"We couldn't make this show without them. They have great relationships with the film office and the city agencies. They can do things for us in Washington that we can never do on our own," he says.

"The West Wing" spends roughly $2.5 million a year in Washington, including airfare, hotel rooms and paying for ThinkFilm's services, Mr. Wells says.

"We put them under a lot of pressure. They're worth it," he says.

Like ThinkFilm, other local companies that toil in movie and TV work say their business is becoming more dependent on the film industry.

The Washington Source for Lighting Inc., a Hyattsville production lighting company, opened as a small shop in 1982. It has 10 employees today, and its workload is becoming less dominated by documentary work, says Vice President John Pacy.

"There is a lot more to do in this market than when we started. It used to be a small film community. Everybody used to know everybody," he says.

Nervous breakdowns'

Although film work has its perks notably the opportunity to rub elbows with screen idols like Rob Lowe and Tea Leoni it is rarely glamorous.

This year, ThinkFilm spent weeks trying to track down a rare, Irish green Porsche for "Spy Game," an upcoming Brad Pitt movie that shot scenes in Georgetown. It finally found one of the cars, but it broke down the day filming began.

"You have nervous breakdowns on those days," Ms. Antosca says.

Lining up filming permits is also tough. To film a recent "West Wing" scene in front of the U.S. Capitol required three permits one from the Capitol police, which has jurisdiction over the Capitol building; one from the U.S. Park Service, which is responsible for maintaining the sidewalk; and one from the D.C. government, whose jurisdiction includes the street.

"What makes us unique is that we know how to work with the city to obtain those permits. A producer from out of town would have a much more difficult time doing that," says ThinkFilm partner Jonathan Zurer.

What isn't tough, Mr. Becker says, is finding people to work on film projects. When the area's free-lance cameramen and crew members aren't working on movies and shows, they are working on the documentaries churned out by the Bethesda-based Discovery Channel.

"There is a lot of work here for the free-lancers," he says.

The region is also home to plenty of actors, says Dagmar Wittmer, a partner in Central Casting Co. on Capitol Hill. The company casts small parts and extras for movies and shows that film in town.

But Central Casting can't rely on the film industry alone, Ms. Wittmer says. The firm is also a modeling agency, and it casts actors for political ads and training videos for government employees.

"Most of the television series come here and shoot for a few days, and then you don't see them again for nine months," she says.

The Dallas way

Mr. Wells of "The West Wing" says the movies and shows coming to the District could expand the city's film industry. "There could be more room in the market for companies like ThinkFilm," he says.

Similar patterns have emerged in other cities.

When CBS began filming its prime time soap opera "Dallas" in east Texas in 1977, there were few local production companies to support the show, according to Ellen Sandoloski Mayers, assistant director for the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Commission.

But the series ran 14 seasons and helped start a cottage production industry in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, she says.

Today, that region is home to a major production studio and several entertainment companies. The CBS action series "Walker, Texas Ranger" recently wrapped up nine seasons of filming in Dallas, and several movies are shot there every year.

"The 'Dallas' series helped train a lot of people. It really kicked everything off for us," Ms. Mayers says.

Filmmakers John Waters and Barry Levinson have helped do the same thing for Baltimore, but on a smaller scale.

Mr. Waters shot his cult movies, including "Hairspray" and "Cry-Baby," in his hometown. Mr. Levinson also films movies there, and he shot his long-running NBC crime drama "Homicide: Life on the Street" in town.

Today, Baltimore has several entertainment companies, including lighting businesses, set decorators and a Central Casting Co. satellite office.

"These things kind of snowball. You attract projects like 'Homicide,' and then these companies start popping up," says Jack Gerbes, deputy director of the Maryland Film Office.

D.C. drawbacks

Washington could be more aggressive in luring film projects, says Virginia native and former "WKRP in Cincinnati" star Tim Reid, who has produced two short-lived shows in the city.

Many cities try to attract film and television projects to boost their tourism industry, but Washington already is a thriving tourist town, says Mr. Reid, who now works primarily behind the camera. He opened a 60-acre movie and TV studio outside Richmond in 1997.

Washington's labyrinthian federal bureaucracy is also intimidating, he says.

"You may have to get permission from five different agencies to shoot in one location. You never know whose jurisdiction you're sitting in," he says.

Still, it's hard to recreate Washington on a soundstage, Mr. Reid says.

He recalls filming his short-lived CBS detective drama "Snoops" in Georgetown in 1989. At the last minute, he decided he needed a congressman for a cameo. Al Gore, then a senator, volunteered for the job.

"Only in Washington could you pull off something like that," he says.


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