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Why Hollywood Chooses Cincinnati & NKY (And What May Be Coming Next)

CarolMiles AheadIdes of MarchMarauders.

Big time Hollywood stars like Bruce Willis, Christopher Meloni, Cate Blanchett, and Don Cheadle have been spotted on the streets of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky as these movie productions make their way from the Queen City to the box office. 

Cincinnati's look is what lands the city these high-profile roles.

"Director John Sayles said Cincinnati looked a lot like New York City - not just New York, but a period New York, and Cincinnati could play New York better than modern New York," said Kristen Erwin Schlotman, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky Film Commission, the guest speaker at Thursday's Covington Business Council luncheon at the Madison Event Center in Covington. Sayles, who helmed City of Hope here, said that back in the early 90s when the city saw a film boom. "Then I came to the film commission and movies stopped coming to the region altogether," Schlotman said to laughter.

While a production here and there would slink through town, it was through aggressive pursuit of legislative action that Hollywood studios have grown fond of the region again.

"Movies started to chase money. It was less about the creative and more about the business deal," Schlotman told the more than one hundred people in attendance. Incentives lured the film industry to Canada, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, and then states like Louisiana. "We tried to determine how we could be competitive in this industry and if it was about a business deal, what kind of incentives could we provide?" When other states like New Mexico also started to win the film race, Cincinnati's team knew that the region's vast and diverse landscape - coupled with attractive incentives, could beat out those other places.

It took years, but finally Ohio added incentives for film production, making it the 42nd state to do so. Kentucky followed with even more incentives. Schlotman helped each state write their programs, she said. 

Ides of March, the political thriller starring native son George Clooney, was the first big project to land here as a result of the film commission's work in Columbus and Frankfort. The movie was originally going to shoot entirely in Detroit but the film commission had a connection on its board: Nina Clooney, the movie star's mother. "She said, you should call them and maybe the old boy will throw us a bone," Schlotman said. Clooney came to visit. "We showed him you couldn't do a Cincinnati film in Detroit, Michigan. We would work very hard to make sure we could support a project like this. 

"I remember dropping him off at Lunken Airport and asked, Can Cincinnati play Cincinnati? He said, you did good, kid," Schlotman remembered.

Interestingly, while Clooney's script was set in Cincinnati, it had become a different city than he remembered when he grew up here. "We got to Fountain Square, and he said, did they move the fountain?"

Michigan's deal offered a 42 percent tax incentive while Ohio was offering only 25 percent, so Clooney compromised and shot in both states. "It was a coup for us to get that film here and then we showed legislators the film was working and we were getting lots of calls," Schlotman said.

For every dollar spent in association with a film production, $1.20 is returned to the economy, Schlotman claimed. 

The film commission then got in touch with director Todd Haynes who ended up bringing his Carol project to town, along with star Cate Blanchett for a film whose praise made it one of the darlings of Cannes where it competed for the prestigious Palme D'Or. "It was a great project and was seen all over the world," Schlotman said, adding that Haynes stopped a press conference in the French city to dote on Cincinnati.

By word of mouth through the industry, the idea that Cincinnati could be a period New York was spreading. The Blunderer was seen shooting period New York scenes in front of Bellevue's iconic Marianne Theater (pictured above) and the film will be released in December, renamed as A Kind of Murder. "It's a great film-noir piece," Schlotman said. 

The word is out and Cincinnati is hot. "We're not just getting a move anymore. We're getting movie after movie. At any given time, there is a movie in town, shooting, or scouting, or wrapping."

There is so much activity that the Ohio budget will allow for $40 million in film incentives next year. "This is the beginning. We want to be a global destination for all things production," Schlotman said. That means cultivating strong film programs at Northern Kentucky University and the University of Cincinnati "to create programs so that we're developing young talent and they're not going off to New York or L.A. They can do it right here."

Lots of commercial productions have also returned to the area, offering more work for local production crews. That's important, because when the incentive trend dries up, those regions with strong film workers and infrastructure will remain competitive, she said.

What's next? "HBO is in town right now scouting for a TV series. They'd like to shoot a pilot and if that's successful, they'll shoot a series here," Schlotman said. Cincinnati was named a top city in the world for film production, she said, so now business interests like the Chamber of Commerce are working to lure more productions here.

There is also another big name film that starts shooting next week - a "response film" to the Straight Out of Compton this time told from the perspective of female members of that storyline. Another Hollywood film arrives later in July - but Schlotman wouldn't give any details yet. Its stars are "bigger than life", "so you'll see them around town."

Schlotman, a graduate of Walnut Hills High School and Miami University, enjoys telling Cincinnati's story to those who would tell there stories here. "I care about the region first and film second and it's been a dream come true to live here and pursue the dream I had growing up here," she said. "And now I see kids doing the same thing. It's a rewarding experience."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photo: A Kind of Murder shoots in Bellevue (provided by Mark Kerley/RCN file)