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If Cleveland builds a soundstage, will moviemakers come?

A local production crew prepares a shot for the forthcoming film "Wormwood Falling" [Marquette Williams]
Cleveland production crew prepares a shot for the forthcoming film "Wormwood Falling" [Marquette Williams]

The vision of Northeast Ohio as a destination for moviemakers has long been the dream of some local leaders.

Demand for streaming film and TV shows has sparked a renewed interest in making that happen. A potential key to that quest – building local production facilities.

For decades, Hollywood was known as the American dream factory, where studios cranked out movies and shipped them across the country. But these days, films and TV shows, ranging from "Stranger Things" to the new Spider-Man movie, share a different point of origin: Atlanta, Georgia.

"The film incentives competition obviously is something that plays into that," said Adam Bruns, managing editor for the Atlanta-based "Site Selection" magazine, a trade publication that covers where companies locate and why. He notes that Georgia offers generous tax rebates to lure moviemakers.

"It's not just the incentives, though. There's a lot of other pieces to the puzzle," he said. 

Entertainment entrepreneur Tyler Perry built a 12-soundstage complex in Atlanta [Martin Adolfsson]

One of the biggest puzzle pieces is a big building known as a soundstage, equipped with lighting grids, carpentry shops and various sorts of tech. Actor, director, and producer Tyler Perry has built a filmmaking complex in Atlanta. A former GM plant in suburban Atlanta is now home to another movie-making campus. Even an old drive-in theater has been transformed from screening films to producing them.

"We see the appetite for content across a multiplying number of streaming channels and everything else. So, the companies creating this content are looking for new places to do it," he said. 

So, why not Cleveland? Ned Hill, a professor of economic development at Ohio State, questions the use of film production as a tool for developing regional economies.

"The film and production side of the movie business follows subsidy," Hill said. "It's an industry that, since it moved away from the studio system, reacts to OPM – other people's money."

Hill said he is skeptical of the notion that luring filmmakers with a local studio or soundstage is a good idea.

"This has been tried in other locations, and as soon as the subsidy for the production itself was cut off, they don't use the soundstage and the soundstage goes belly up," he said. 

Hill was called in as an economic development consultant to New Orleans, after the city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He says civic leaders were enamored by the potential of film studios bringing multimillion-dollar productions to the city. So, the state offered generous tax incentives, which eventually went away. Now, the city is home to a landscape of unused soundstages.

Cleveland filmmaker Marquette Williams is a big advocate of Ohio’s motion picture tax credit, but he sees it as a seed to get a film production culture going. He agrees that film studios are always looking to cut costs, and argues local infrastructure, along with a trained workforce is a key to that.

"They're run by accountants and lawyers," he said. "So, if you build infrastructure, which will save them money, if you build facilities, if you train labor, so they don't have to fly out a painter, if you really want to trap and keep them here, then you have to put on a party filled with all the goodies that they like. Their number one goodie is labor. It is literally labor intensive."

Local film shoots often use empty warehouses with sometimes questionable infrastructure. [Marquette Williams]

Williams is looking to build a small studio on the East Side as a training site to groom that labor and to create local jobs in a hard-pressed economy.

"The studio emerged for us as an economic tool to get social impact, workforce development and economic change," he said.  "We began to realize that it was easier to get that funded than an actual training program or training facility, to be honest with you, because it’s more attractive."

The lure of the movies – either from Hollywood or Atlanta – is strong. There have been previous attempts to build soundstages in Northeast Ohio, but those dreams haven’t materialized yet. Recent soundstage project proposals for Dakar Studios indicated that property deals were being pursued in Bedford and Medina. Dakar did not respond to requests for comment from Ideastream Public Media.

And there's another question yet to be answered: If you build it, will they come?



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