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Cleveland was almost New York City in 'Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' (Thanks COVID!)

Filming 'Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' on set rather than Cleveland.

For more than a decade, filmmakers have cast Cleveland as a stand-in for New York City, Chicago, Moscow and more. Its accessible streets, diverse cityscape, and crashing Great Lake shores make it the perfect double for cities around the world. And in early 2020, Cleveland was set to star as NYC all over again for Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.

“Cleveland stood in for The Avengers once before, and we were all set to go,” says Cyndy Ochs, visual effects producer, in the latest episode of Assembled: The Making of ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’. Along with The AvengersCleveland appeared in Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Sony's Spider-Man 3.

Production was ramping up. Multiverse of Madness director and Michigan native Sam Raimi and crew were ready to shoot. Dr. Strange himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, was likely planning his flight - cloak and all - to the North Coast.

Then something unexpected happened.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange.

Thanks, COVID

In March 2020, right before cameras started rolling, the coronavirus pandemic hit hard.

"Once COVID shut the industry down worldwide, Marvel changed course to limit the number of filming locations and reduce potential COVID exposure," says Bill Garvey, president of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission.

“Traveling to Cleveland seemed like something we weren’t going to be able to do,” Richie Palmer, executive producer, explains in an Assembled interview.

Film schedules being what they are - tight, chaotic - Marvel parted ways with Cleveland.

"We were this close," Garvey says.

Eventually, new COVID protocols would allow filmmakers to get back to work. But with a need to control cast and crew exposure, Executive Producer Jamie Christopher recommended building a four-block New York City set rather than go on-location. Marvel did, at Longcross Studios in Chertsey, U.K.

“Not only does it pass for New York in our universe,” says Palmer, “it passes for New York in multiple universes.”

For the visual effects heavy Dr. Strange, the New York backlot set allowed filmmakers to ratchet back building facades, push over buildings, and hydraulically drop the street. It could also handle the beating of numerous debris drops. Think cars, trucks, bricks and more. 

All of which may have been a bit much for E. 9th Street.

Terminal Tower now and onscreen in 'The Avengers'.

Marvel's spotlight on Northeast Ohio

"Marvel has been a prominent partner in helping build a motion picture industry in Northeast Ohio," Garvey says. "The spotlight these high profile projects bring to our region is a beacon that attracts other filmmakers." 

High-profile studio projects supercharge the local economy, Garvey explains, with millions spent at local vendors. 

"Motion picture production spent over $190 million in Ohio in 2021," he says. "That’s good, but the Greater Cleveland Film Commission advocates for an increase in the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Incentive in order to drive more  production dollars looking for a base of operations to Ohio." 

There's plenty out there, too. Streaming services and niche content channels are a catalyst to more projects than ever before.

"Those of us in the industry who live and work in Ohio make our living in an ecosystem of studio projects, independent projects, local TV commercials, and print advertising," Garvey says. "Every part of that ecosystem is important to providing stable jobs and careers."

Passing for New York - and Chicago and L.A. and …

Though it might be best known for playing New York City in The Avengers climactic Battle for New York, Cleveland has doubled for cities for more than four decades. 

One of Cleveland’s first turns as New York was in the 1980 Paul Simon film, One-Trick Pony. The semi-autobiographical film, an adaptation of Simon’s eponymous concept album, follows Jonah Levin as he tries to mount a rock and roll comeback. Live sessions were recorded at The Agora music venue and appear on the soundtrack.

Cleveland played Harding, a fictional Midwest city, in The Escape ArtistThe Washington Post called the film “one of the nicest moviegoing experiences that ever eluded analysis.” It also famously stood in for Hohman, Indiana, in A Christmas Story. The classic holiday tale feels more like a Cleveland story today.

In the low-budget sci-fil film Double Dragon, Cleveland dressed as a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. The Cuyahoga River played an ocean-flooded Hollywood Boulevard. Wade Oval and Severance Hall were cast as a Moscow neighborhood in Air Force One.

Chicago in Judas and the Black Messiah was actually Cleveland. All the D.C. action in Captain America: The Winter Soldier happened on Cleveland streets, including a long stretch of U.S. Route 2 (the Shoreway, as Clevelanders call it), which became the D.C. Beltway.

And those are just a few examples.

Hosting Dr. Strange would have been fun. We’ll lament not bumping into Cumberbatch at a Guardians game. But we’ll rest easy knowing that, before long, Cleveland will put on its costume and step in front of the camera - again.

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