When wheat turns gold: City and state set their caps for Hollywood

Even at 9 a.m., empty of crowds, Safeco Field had an aura of power. The monstrous fa├žade, like the Roman Colosseum, seemed an icon of physical force. I was meeting Donna James, director of the Mayor's Office of Film and Music, and Suzy Kellett, her counterpart for the Washington State Film Office, at Media Inc., across the street from the stadium.

Safeco Field made a symbolic fit for talk about another national preoccupation: movies. Like sports, movies are a multimillion-dollar machine, transform a few human beings into stars and false idols and offer enormous economic benefits to those involved.

James and Kellett are working to raise standards in how local government interacts with the film industry so as to attract more filmmakers to the city. Although their job titles sound glamorous, their jobs are not glitzy get-togethers with the stars. They describe themselves as problem-solvers. Kellett answers questions like, "What day is the wheat going to turn gold?" Like an oracle, she must predict if there will be snow on Dec. 10. And sometimes she pursues consequential issues such as "Can you tell me how many seconds there are between lighthouse flashes?"

Kellett takes care of preproduction matters and markets the state as a setting for feature films and television commercials. She facilitates producers' requests, from housing and permits to equipment and talent resources. When a company decides to film, if they film in Seattle they work with James, who organizes the police and firefighters and issues the permits.

I encountered James one summer evening on a Queen Anne street. Police had blockaded each intersection; an ABC-TV film crew, actors and equipment covered the road, and gigantic white vans lined the curb. This is a regular part of her job - consulting the neighborhood beforehand, then making sure the film shoot goes smoothly and does not overly disrupt daily life and business.

Without the cooperation of neighborhoods like Queen Anne, James and Kellett could not do their jobs. And Queen Anne boasts two of Seattle's top 10 film locations. A "Parallax View" assassination occurred at the Space Needle, which also was home to Austin Powers' foe, Dr. Evil. Frasier Crane celebrated his 100th broadcast at the Seattle Center. Kerry Park figured in "Life, or Something Like It" and "10 Things I Hate About You."

Metaphorically speaking, James and Kellett help the city and state turn the wheat of filmmaking into gold - gold in terms not only of financial gain but also of creative stimulus and the providing of jobs for local professionals. And a sidebar benefit is always the pride the public feels when they see their "location" on film.

James and Kellett say that Seattle has streamlined the process for companies that want to film here. Fifteen years ago a film company had to go to each department separately. Now it's simple, a one-stop shop where filming details are handled in one large meeting with all departments that could be impacted by filming.

The streamlining turnaround began under Mayor Norm Rice. There were complaints the city wasn't co-operative with filmmakers. James was the arts person in Rice's office, so the mayor asked her, "Donna, go talk to these people and see what they need."

She researched, realized the job needed a name and a face, and told the mayor, "We need one person that these people can count on." He asked her to do it.

From 1992 to '94 James continued as a staff person in the mayor's office but became convinced that the work needed even more close attention. She wanted to start a film office. In 1994, this was accomplished; it was located in the Office of Economic Development.

"It is important to value the time of the filmmaker," James said, "and make the process as easy and efficient as possible."

Holding one meeting for those involved greatly simplifies the process. Many big cities do it this way, and Seattle has become a leader in efficiency. James and Kellett say there are 300 film offices in the world like the one in Seattle, and everyone is going after the films L.A. is pre-paring to make. The United States loses a lot of filmmaking to Canada, which offers terrific national and federal incentives. To attract filmmakers, a city needs a streamlined, hospitable process - plus economic incentives.

"Producers are shopping dollars over locations," Kellett said. "The city has stepped up to do its part. Now the state has to do theirs. Producers say, 'Why go to Washington, when I can save 30 percent by going to Vancouver?' We need to give them that reason."

James recalled that when Lauren Schuler-Donner, producer of "Free Willy," recently spoke to the Seattle group Women in Film, she was asked why she didn't film here. Schuler-Donner replied, "If a studio gives $75 million to film a movie, I can turn it into $100 million in Canada."

The city and state offices bend over backwards to encourage producers to film here. An incentive package has been passed that lowers the Se-attle permit fee to $25 a day. The city hosts several events during the Seattle International Film Festival. When TheFilmSchool brings famous producers and directors into Seattle, the city does its best to be hospitable, sending gift bags with a welcome note from the mayor, and sometimes orga-nizing a private location tour of the city for the visiting filmmaker.

And why should we want to attract filmmakers? Production is "found money," Kellett said. A producer comes in, rents locations, hires local professionals and buys or leases goods and services. It's also exciting and fun. And attracting filmmakers to the city and state is terrific economically, both for the jobs they create and the money they leave behind. Spending affects local industries and tax revenues.

When the dollars were tallied up from 1992 to 2002, Kellett said, "For every dollar spent on the film industry, the industry was leaving about $100 - a return on investment that would please any business owner."

Support for local and out-of-town filming fans out into our communities.

Filmmakers hire local people in the arts. This is a wonderful training ground. When an L.A. company hires locals, they offer both jobs and valuable experience that a person can put back into his or her own career. Local actors can piecemeal a living by performing in local theaters, doing commercials and getting bit parts in movies. A struggling local filmmaker gets a leg up.

As James said, "Today's independent could be tomorrow's Spielberg."

And then there are the unpredictable trivia benefits. The "Sleepless in Seattle" nightshirt is one of the top-selling items at the Seattle-Tacoma airport.

As I walked to my car after the interview, Safeco Field loomed; I wished the ponderous cement showed more Grecian grace. Again I linked sports to the movies. Both are growing dangerously unhinged from ethics and aesthetics, the science of the beautiful and good versus the ugly and destructive. I wondered: as our local film industry grows, what responsibility does it bear to the values and tone of our lifestyle?

For more information about Seattle and Washington state government and the movies, visit www.seattle.gov/filmandmusic and www.filmwashington.com[[In-content Ad]]