Lights, Camera, Jobs!

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Forget glitz, glamour and multimillion-dollar Oscar contenders. Movies with budgets under $10 million shine an important spotlight on jobs and economic development across Washington state, creating an important, thriving industry.

Although the lion’s share of feature-length movies, commercials and movies of the week are produced in Western Washington (since 2007, 42 have been produced on the west side of the mountains, 17 on the east), for the past 20 years, a Spokane company has followed a script that annually pumps millions of dollars into the Inland Northwest economy and has made it the top feature film production company in the state.

In 1990, when Rich Cowan was working for Spokane’s NBC affiliate, KHQ-TV, he wanted to go out on his own and make movies, but relocating to Los Angeles or New York was not in the program. “We had kids, and this is a good place to raise a family,” Cowan says. “So I thought let’s start a company and bring in the work.”

The business plan jelled and Cowan created North By Northwest Productions in Spokane, later opening a second office in Boise. In the past 21 years, North By Northwest has produced 40 feature-length movies and hundreds of documentaries, commercials and corporate videos. It recently added a multimedia division. Today, North By—as employees call it—averages four to five movies a year with budgets ranging from $2 million to $8 million each. Most of those dollars come from outside the area and stay in the Inland Northwest.

Some flicks, like 2006’s Home of the Brave, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Jessica Biel, enjoy moderate box-office buzz, while most go straight to DVD or are made for TV. And some, like the recently completed thriller The River Sorrow, starring Ray Liotta, Christian Slater and Ving Rhames and directed by Cowan, are optioned by Sony Pictures for worldwide distribution. Its high-profile buzz resulted in a red-carpet premiere last month at the Cannes Film Festival.

In March, North By signed a contract to film Thunderballs, a TV-sitcom pilot, in Spokane. Centered on three 30-something guys who belong to a beer-league bowling team, the pilot was shot in May. If the series is picked up by the male-oriented cable-TV channel Spike, it will be shot in Spokane. Casting has not yet been determined.

“It’s all about jobs, keeping local people working,” Cowan says. “By producing smaller-budget films, we can hire locally and keep indigenous support actors and crew employed so they don’t have to travel all over the country for work.”

In addition to 40 full-time staffers, North By Northwest employs as many as 75 locally based freelance actors, camera operators, hair stylists, make-up artists, electricians, production coordinators, property masters, line producers, grips, sound technicians and wardrobe coordinators in the decidedly non-glitzy world of Eastern Washington and North Idaho.

“We’re not looking for blockbuster, multimillion-dollar movies,” Cowan says. “High-budget movies bring all of their own crews with them, so the economic impact is actually much less than lower-budget films that enable us to hire local people on a pretty consistent basis.”

Freelance production coordinator Mary Russell embraces the concept. “I’ve only spent three months away from home and my husband in the last three years,” she says, “because I’ve been able to work steadily for North By Northwest.” Originally from Charleston, South Carolina, Russell had worked as a stage manager for a theater company but had no movie experience. North By Northwest hired and trained her seven years ago, creating a means for her to work in a field she loves and to stay in a city she now calls home.

“Living in Spokane is a trade-off, not a sacrifice,” says 20-year film and commercial veteran C. David Hall-Cottrill, who works as a property master and is the local shop steward for the filmmakers’ union. He and his wife moved to Spokane from Philadelphia five years ago to care for her aging aunt. He was happy and surprised to find union-scale work.

“North By does a great job of attracting lower-tier films, so work is pretty steady,” Hall-Cottrill says. “I don’t have to live the carnival life of traveling to different locations for months at a time. I get to come home every night to my wife and two kids, and that’s worth a lot.”

Beyond crew, support staff and actors, the trickle-down effect of the motion picture industry reaches far into the local economy—to hardware stores, furniture dealers, car rental agencies, hotels, restaurants, caterers, florists, landscapers and more. Two years ago, Spokane’s Giles Catering landed its first job on a North By Northwest movie. It assembled a kitchen and serving crew to prepare lavish breakfasts—everything from to-go burritos to sit-down ham and eggs—and huge buffet lunches for about 100 people every day for six weeks.

“When we’re on a movie, it’s work, work, work, and we’re able to hire one to two assistants and pay them a good wage,” says Beckie Giles, who owns the company with her husband Rick.

Movies are shot all over the state, but the Inland Northwest has a decided advantage with enough shooting possibilities, amenities and favorable weather to make a location coordinator drool. Spokane, with a ready supply of early-1900s brick buildings in a variety of architectural styles, well-manicured facades and alleys, which can morph from benign to gritty with a set dresser’s touch, has doubled for a century’s worth of America’s biggest cities. Using a tight shot, downtown’s 100-acre Riverfront Park has even masqueraded as New York’s Central Park more than once.

Four distinct seasons provide appropriate backdrops, and 260-plus days of annual sunshine ensure that summer will look like summer and production won’t be rained out. Cowan says police, fire and city officials are easy to work with and permitting is smooth and uncomplicated. Beyond the city limits, evergreen forests cut with rivers and lakes blanket the north and east, the rolling Palouse farmlands sweep to the south and high-desert scrubland stretches from Spokane to the Cascade Mountains.

But choice locations, good weather and cooperative government officials aren’t enough to keep the cameras rolling. One of the biggest challenges facing North By Northwest and other movie and commercial production companies in Washington state is competition from other locales that offer generous incentives. Washington’s motion picture and video exemption program, a $3.5 million fund that provides incentives for film companies to work in the state, is set to sunset in July. In February, more than 100 Washington filmmakers and the staff of Washington Filmworks, the state’s movie-industry promoter and clearinghouse, met with state legislators in Olympia to plead the case for continued funding.

Forty-four states and Canada offer incentives to entice production companies. Washington Filmworks committed $14 million between February 2007 and December 2010, which has yielded a return on investment of $54 million in direct spending. The film office rebates 30 percent of qualified expenditures on labor and talent (for state residents only), but the amount is barely competitive with Oregon’s annual $7.5 million fund, which rebates to production companies for all physical purchases (not including wages) and kicks back for wages paid to resident and non-resident labor.

“It’s not ‘where is the best location?’,” says Amy Lillard, executive director of Washington Filmworks. “It’s the business of filmmaking. It’s all about return on investment.”

“Without the film subsidy,” adds Cowan, “we couldn’t make movies. Washington simply would no longer be competitive.”

Cinema Sampler
A short selection of films made at least partly in Washington (with the director’s name in parentheses).

An Officer and a Gentleman (Taylor Hackford)
Battle in Seattle (Stuart Townsend)
Benny & Joon (Jeremiah S. Chechik)
Disclosure (Barry Levinson)
Extraordinary Measures (Tom Vaughan)
The Fabulous Baker Boys (Steve Kloves)
Finding Bliss (Julie Davis)
The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson)
The Hunt for Red October (John McTiernan)
Into the Wild (Sean Penn)
It Happened at the World’s Fair (Norman Taurog)
10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger)
Toys (Barry Levinson)
Tugboat Annie (Mervyn LeRoy)
Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke)
The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula)
The Ring (Gore Verbinski)
Singles (Cameron Crowe)
Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron)
World’s Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait)

Sources: Washington Filmworks and the Mayor’s Office of Film + Music