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Cleveland, Detroit & Pittsburgh: The Midwest Movie Belt

Check out the full infographic at the bottom of this story.
Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh are historically known for their ties to the steel, oil and automotive industries. At the height of production, and when city populations were expanding, the region was interchangeably known as the Manufacturing Belt and the Steel Belt. But when those industries began to decline in the mid- to late-20th century, and laid-off workers started moving away, the region got a new name: The Rust Belt.

Today, all three cities are in the midst of a renaissance. New industries are taking hold in each city, enticing thought leaders and young professionals to put down roots and make the Midwest home. Bio-medical, technology, social services and education are fueling the region’s rebirth.

But the most exciting and surprising new industry for Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh is the motion picture industry.

In fact, the three metropolitan areas, no more than a five-hour drive apart, account for the vast majority of major motion picture production in Ohio, Michigan and the Western Pennsylvania region - well beyond 500 feature films in the last three decades.

Those films include Hollywood blockbusters like Marvel’s The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Transformers and the soon-to-be filmed Man of Steel 2: Superman vs. Batman.

In short, the region is the Midwest’s one-and-only Movie Belt. It’s giving the rest of the nation a true run for its big budget money. And it’s offering film professionals a chance to settle down and build a successful career right at home.

Everything a filmmaker could want
Arguably, the Midwest’s Movie Belt is catching up to California and New York as one of the busiest hubs for movie making in the U.S. A quick example. Only four feature films shot in and around Chicago in 2012, according to the Chicago Film Office’s website. In the Movie Belt? Nearly 30.

The Dark Knight Rises - Pittsburgh
On the set of 'The Dark Knight Rises' in Pittsburgh
It’ll take work for the region to surpass states like Georgia and Louisiana. According to the Filmworks website, Louisiana was home to 118 feature film and television projects in 2010. Georgia, more than 50. And with 40 states now offering film incentives, the competition is only growing stronger.

But the Movie Belt has a lot to offer filmmakers. And it all starts with unique architecture and easy accessibility to varied topography within a short drive of downtown, says Ivan Schwarz, director of the Cleveland Film Commission.

“There’s nothing a filmmaker can’t do in Northeast Ohio,” Schwarz says. “You don’t have to give up anything to tell your story, whether it’s set in New York, on the West Coast or in the middle of America.”

The same goes for Pittsburgh and Detroit. Jessica Conner, assistant director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, touts the Steel City as a modern ‘burg with several culturally diverse surrounding boroughs.

“Farms, suburbs and small towns are all within 20 minutes of downtown hotels,” she says. “The Pittsburgh area offers many different looks all within a small, accessible radius of the city.”

Accessibility is a perk for productions in Detroit, too.

“Projects love filming in Detroit because of the incredible architecture and the wide range of locations that are easily found within a relatively small distance from the city,” says Michelle Begnoche, public relations manager for the Michigan Film Office. “From a downtown urban scene, to a suburban feel, to even farm fields and small town U.S.A. you can find it all within about 20 miles of Detroit.”

A focus on customer service
While each city has doubled for the likes of New York City, Washington, D.C., Gotham City, Chicago, and Moscow, among many other locations, Schwarz, Conner and Begnoche agree that this flexibility and accessibility will never be the foundation for building a successful industry in the Belt.

On the set of 'The Avengers' in Cleveland
“It’s all about relationships and good customer service,” says Schwarz. “Marvel’s The Avengers and Fun Size had really good experiences here. It wasn’t just because of the choice of locations we had to offer, but the way the state of Ohio does business. We offer producers great crews and excellent customer service. And that impels those producers to return to the region and further invest in the community.”

And as the saying goes, size doesn’t matter. Some film productions require a fair amount of hand-holding, while others require nothing at all.

“We assist every production - from a photo shoot to a major feature film - the same way,” says Conner. “We’re equally available to all of them. They receive the same resources and the same level of assistance. The Lifeguard (starring Kristen Bell, shot in Pittsburgh and Sewickley Valley, Penn.) was considered low budget by Hollywood standards, and they experienced a very successful shoot in southwestern Pennsylvania.”

Giving filmmakers an incentive
Unique locations and strong customer service is appealing to every film production. But the hard truth is shooting on location is an expensive and complex logistical endeavor. Producers must transport crew and equipment, house and feed crew and cast, secure rights to shoot on location, control crowds, divert traffic, deal with changes in weather and local governmental opinion - the list goes on and on.

In short, the pros of shooting on location somewhere in the Movie Belt (or anywhere else for that matter) are often overshadowed by the cons. So it’s imperative that states that want to attract film production and build a sustainable entertainment industry for the long-term provide some incentive for producers to opt for location shooting.

On the set of 'Transformers' in Detroit
More often than not, the incentive that makes the difference is a financial one.  And while most think of a film incentive as a tax break for filmmakers, today’s film incentive varies not only from state-to-state, but in structure, type, and size as well.  Tax credits and exemptions are often included, but other incentive programs might include cash grants, fee-free locations or other perks.

“Without our film incentive, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” says Schwarz.
The Ohio Film Tax Credit provides for a refundable credit against the corporation franchise or income tax for motion pictures produced in Ohio. The tax credit is equal to 25% of non-wage and nonresident wage Ohio production expenditures and 35% of Ohio resident wage production expenditures. Up to $5 million in credits is available per production.
“The incentive is applied to the film’s budget line and, in turn, the incentive is then spent in Ohio,” explains Schwarz. “That money never leaves the state. It’s spent on local crews and cast, locations, local vendors, hotels, restaurants, shops and so on.”
Pennsylvania offers a 25% transferable tax credit for any production spending a minimum 60% of their budget on qualified expenses in the Commonwealth. And Michigan offers an incentive of up to 35% for qualified expenditures, including Michigan hires and money spent on goods and services in the state. There is a minimum spend of at least $100,000 per project to qualify, and approval must be made before expenditures can qualify.
On the set of the low-budget 'A Strange Brand of Happy'
Film incentives have generated $100 million in revenue for four years running in southwestern Pennsylvania, and in the current fiscal year Michigan has awarded incentives to 28 projects projected to spend nearly $139 million in the state. The majority of the projects will film in Detroit and the metro Detroit region.

“Beyond the financial benefit of a film incentive, the incentive needs to be easy to use and understand. It needs to be rational,” says Schwarz. “The goal with a film incentive should never be landing The Avengers. The goal is creating jobs, nurturing the growth of the industry and building a foundation for filmmaking in the region. It’s creating sustainability and long-term growth. It must be built not to exploit the community, but to support it.

Growing a new industry
Schwarz compares the Movie Belt’s burgeoning film industry to the region’s traditional industries - automotive and manufacturing. In their heyday, those industries fueled economic growth by supporting ancillary businesses that in turn strengthened the industry - tool and die shops that supplied the automakers with parts, for example. All the way down to supermarkets and shops in the neighborhoods where employees bought homes and raised families.  

“What we do isn’t just about ‘the movies’,” says Schwarz. “It’s about building the infrastructure that will support the industry. We want and need to nurture the growth of vendors and services that will support, form and become a part of the industry.

“We don’t want to end the day with a big fish in our small ocean. We want to be a busy ocean with lots and lots of fish of all shapes and sizes. And we want to support that eco-system for years and years and years.”

That industry includes production work outside the film and television world. All three cities are focused on growing their digital media and video gaming production base, as well.

Working independently - together
With similar goals, comparable challenges and close proximity to one another, one might wonder if the Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh film commissions might ally with one another to drive even more business to the region.

Spider-Man 3 - Cleveland
Spider-Man 3 on the streets of Cleveland
Unfortunately, differing governmental structures and state regulations prevent anything official from happening. That doesn’t mean communication is non-existent between the groups.
“We always work with our fellow film offices,” says Conner. “We share information and resources when needed to make each of the offices better.”

Schwarz concurs. “We’re all in it for the same reason. We all draw from one another.”

And as with all things Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, there’s always a bit of good-natured rivalry.

“Of course there’s friendly competition,” says Conner, adding that part of that rivalry is born out of Cleveland and Pittsburgh sharing a similar look. “But we’re fortunate in that we have had a long-established film history. Filmmakers have made moves here since 1914 with the Perils of Pauline.”

Ohio filmmaker Chris Peplin on the set
of the low-budget 'Beautiful Garden'
“The truth is people come to Cleveland or go to Pittsburgh because they’re from here or from there,” says Schwarz. “Some filmmakers want to come home and bring their success with them. Or they have built a relationship with me or someone at one of the other film offices. Or they heard about the great customer service we provide.”
Schwarz circles back, underscoring the importance of relationship building and customer service.
“It’s not just about bringing them (to one of the cities), but providing that good experience while they’re here. That’s why they come back. And we couldn’t do it without our partners and our crews, vendors and the community - all willing to help out and support our efforts.”
The real winners - local film professionals
Borders may separate each film office, but they don’t keep film professionals from working in and around all three cities.

Sustaining a freelance career as a production assistant, makeup artist or grip was next to impossible 20 years ago, but today it’s entirely possible. Only five hours by car separates Detroit and Pittsburgh. And the film professional who calls Cleveland home can get to either city in about two hours.

“There are a lot of people who want to work in the industry but don’t necessarily want to leave home,” says Schwarz. “So this is a real boon for filmmakers, crew and cast. Living in the region, they’re only a couple hours from a lot of production.”

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