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New Greater Cleveland Film Commission president on moviemaking, tax incentives

Film Commission president Bill Garvey brings two decades of filmmaking experience to the job [Greater Cleveland Film Commission]
Film Commission president Bill Garvey brings two decades of filmmaking experience to the job

A major motion picture recently wrapped shooting in various locations around Northeast Ohio. “White Noise,” starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig was one of the first projects shepherded by Bill Garvey, the new president of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission.

A chilly wind whipped across a desolate section of Cleveland’s Flats under the Innerbelt bridge, last week, as Garvey pointed out a barren tract of land.  Just a few weeks earlier on this very spot sat a full-sized façade of a motel built from scratch by the “White Noise” production crew.

“It's a project that spent the last five months filming here in Northeast Ohio,” Garvey said. “You don't have to go to L.A. to make movies that are high quality. The crew that works here makes the same rates as you would make in L.A., and they work on the same caliber projects. We have a vibrant business here, and it's growing.”

It’s now Garvey's job to keep it growing. The 48-year-old officially took over the helm of the film commission in September after the departure of his predecessor, Evan Miller, who stepped down after 18 months on the job.

Garvey comes to the post after a 26-year career as a film location manager. Garvey said he’s worked closely with many directors and production designers, helping scout locations and working out logistics. He sees it as a transferrable skill set.

In addition to working on the "Sopranos" production crew in 2001, Bill Garvey had a scene with actor James Gandolfini. [Bill Garvey]

“A lot of film commissions are run by former location managers,” he said. “We interact with studios a lot and we interact with local government. Those skills are definitely valuable in running a film commission and attracting more business to northeast Ohio.”

Since marrying a Cleveland gal and moving here over a decade ago, Garvey has worked on many of the major films shot in the region, including “The Avengers,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Fast 8” and the Academy Award-winning “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Cast and crew members of "Judas and the Black Messiah" sit with students in the Boys and Girls Club in Slavic Village. Bill Garvey helped scout neighborhood locations for the film. [Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland]

About a month ago, that historical drama about the Black Panther Party also won an award for the look of its locations, where Cleveland streets in Glenville and Slavic Village stood in for Chicago. Garvey argues that Ohio could get even more movie business if it raised the state's contribution to tax refunds films can get for shooting here.

The Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit provides a refundable, transferable tax credit of 30 percent on production, cast and crew wages, plus other eligible in-state spending. But, Ohio caps the reimbursement pot at $40 million annually.

“Our state incentive is one of the lowest film tax-incentives states,” Garvey said. "Because of that, we are limited as to how much production can come here. So last year... when we were coming out of COVID and there had been no production for six months, the studios were revving up to get production done, to get content created. And there was more production than I have ever seen trying to come here. I was juggling four projects at the same time. Only one of them came because of the tax incentive cap, so we missed out on $100 million of production budget that would have come here.”

To back his argument, Garvey noted that other states have sweetened the pot for filmmakers.

“Kentucky just increased its tax incentive to $100 million,” he said. “Pennsylvania recently introduced a bill to increase its tax incentive to $125 million.”

Over 30 states are offering some form of rebate for film productions and there are many streaming services looking for content. A r eport on this burgeoning activity in the Wall Street Journal this past summer noted there were both fans and critics of the practice.

It seems clear that a lot of these film and TV productions gravitate towards locations like California and Georgia that have the built-in infrastructure of sound stages and other technical facilities. “White Noise” created an ad hoc staging area in a former WalMart and adjoining spaces at Severance Town Center in Cleveland Heights.

“Seventy-thousand-square feet of space and every speck of it was used,” Garvey said. “It was an incredible sight to see, which also created a hundred jobs in construction. We hire and employ hundreds of people locally. And it's not theater kids that came out of high school. It's a lot of different skill sets that go into these movies.”

Cleveland Heights business development manager Brian Anderson said the space was a hive of activity and he'd like to see it continue.

“This was the whole production, with art departments and building sets. There were a bunch of ancillary departments other than just crews filming scenes,” he said. “I think certainly the city would be open to a more permanent and purposeful use ... of some of the property for that industry long term.”

Bill Garvey scouted downtown Cleveland locations for "The Avengers," in 2011. [David C. Barnett / Ideastream Public Media]

This past spring, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson proposed creating a new division at City Hall to promote big events and filmmaking. With the new administration of Justin Bibb starting to plan its priorities, Garvey said his film commission wants to work with the city to ease the red tape that producers have encountered.

“The permitting process here in Cleveland, and this isn't just for movie permits, but across the board, is an analog process,” he said. “So, the idea was to create a digital, online permitting process that would make the turnaround, the approvals, go more efficiently, and we support that online process. And that would match the way that other cities do this. It's gone digital almost everywhere."

Garvey is optimistic about 2022, starting off with a new set of filmmakers coming to town.

“There's a Universal movie that will be here this spring," he said. "That's set to start prep early next year.”

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.