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January 24th, 2007 James Boyda | Featured Stories
 

The Flicker-down Effect

Hollywood's biz and buzz come a-calling for Portland's film professionals.

     
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Katie O'Grady can clean a mean toilet—no small feat, considering she can do it while looking impeccably bright-eyed, blond and put together. She's also well-versed in trash bags and sweater vests and could talk the most reluctant home shopper into a "Bananas for You" Teddy Bear from Vermont. She's that good.

O'Grady is an actress—the go-to girl in the Portland commercial market. You've seen her in TV ads for Clorox and Blockbuster. You've heard her as the "voice" of Pacific Office Automation.

Offscreen, O'Grady is far from the excitable, super-consuming soccer mom that has been her bread-and-butter role. She's a smart career woman and a devoted artist who does commercials and direct-response promotions (ahem, "informercials") to supplement her lust for independent cinema.

"My commercials pay for my film life," O'Grady told WW. "I'd love to be able to be [an actor] who can turn things down and do things only for artistic purposes, but I make money playing the mom."

In a town where most organic-grocery checkers would kill for an iota of work in the arts, she is grateful to be the rare working artist. Key word here: working.

But as Hollywood gallops into town to shoot more movies and Portland's own LAIKA Studios expands into animated features with big-name directors Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach) and Jorgen Klubien (Cars, A Bug's Life), Portland's film professionals, from actors like O'Grady to sound engineers and casting agents, may be getting a leg up.

In the past year or so, Portland, and Oregon at large, has been the good-luck recipient of a surge in new film work. Many insiders cite Gov. Ted Kulongoski's mid-2005 Greenlight Oregon bill and the established Oregon Production Investment Fund, which give hefty wage incentives and cash rebates (up to 16.2 percent combined) to productions spending $1 million or more, as reasons for the recent production boom.

Because of the incentives, big-budget productions like Robert Benton's Feast of Love (starring Morgan Freeman) have brought millions of dollars to Portland's film and service industries. And the pace doesn't seem to be letting up. Lakeshore Entertainment, which produced Feast, will be back in early spring with Untraceable, a thriller starring Diane Lane, alongside two other studio films directed by Sean Penn (Into the Wild) and Bruce Campbell.

According to the Oregon Film and Video Office, about 3,500 full-time and 2,000 freelance film workers live in Oregon. Of those, most work in indigenous film and video—that's on corporate videos, infomercials and industrial commercials—a sector that rakes in about $234 million per year (roughly $19 million of business was from feature films in 2005).

With Hollywood comes the hope that a greater diversity of work will become available to local film people looking to branch out of their ho-hum video grind—people who are integral to the industry but aren't as established as, say, Gus Van Sant.

O'Grady, for example, had her first ever audition for a lead in a major motion picture this year precisely because Hollywood is cashing in on the incentives to hire local actors and crew for movies shot in Portland. Although the part eventually—and somewhat inevitably—went to Hollywood vet Selma Blair, O'Grady was thrilled to be considered in the first place.

It is uncertain whether the fickle Hollywood "trickle down" is here to stay. Oregon has had a film boom before. In the early 1990s, production crews shooting features like Free Willy and Mr. Holland's Opus flooded the state with about $80 million in revenue. However, Steve Oster, director of the OFVO, says places like Vancouver, B.C., and Australia used aggressive incentive programs to steal away nearly all of the budding film biz in the state. Consequently, out-of-state feature film revenue hit a five-year low (about $10 million) in 2003.

This time around, Oregon has made its tax structures more film-friendly and has been playing a yearlong game of catch-up to meet the new demand. The real question is whether P-town can gather enough resources and people to become the next Vancouver or Austin, Texas—small(ish) cities that have parlayed their talent, cheap labor and tax breaks into big Hollywood payoffs—on a year-round basis.

Portland's filmmaking infrastructure seems a major concern. Davis Priestley, a local production coordinator whose job it is to hire film crews, says that "nine times out of 10" all the people he wants to contract onto a project are now booked several jobs in advance. "I've been at the point," Priestley added, "that I've been calling people, trying to convince them that they know how to do a job." Specialized equipment can be scarce, too, he notes.

However, Priestley—a Hollywood expat who looks like a young Tom Selleck—ultimately sees this gap in infrastructure as a good thing. There is elbow room here, he says, for people working hard and for businesses to grow exponentially.

Priestley did the L.A. grind at places like Warner Bros. and Universal before settling on Portland "to get hands-on [film experience] at a higher level." Within the year, Priestley was blessed to work closely with Gus Van Sant on the upcoming Paranoid Park and local director James Westby's The Auteur, due out this spring.

Helen Kalafatic, an alumna of SpongeBob SquarePants, has a similar story. She relocated to Oregon in '04 to produce the award-winning short film Moongirl at LAIKA—which was known as Will Vinton Studios until Nike honcho Phil Knight bought the group in 2003 and transformed it into LAIKA in 2005. She says the studio is realizing a bevy of new film work. And it needs skilled people to do that work. "Some people move here to get out of L.A.," Kalafatic said via Alise Munson, LAIKA's PR rep. "But the foremost reason they move here is to work at LAIKA...they aren't drifting studio to studio."

Why? Consider the fact that Knight has invested more than $100 million in the studio and backed $50 million to $70 million budgets for feature films. By the end of 2007, LAIKA will expand the number of full-time film jobs—from animators and marketing VPs to set builders and puppet fabricators—at the studio to 500-plus. This means a permanent influx of creative jobs into the Portland area, and the studio is hiring both locally and globally.

But for all of its new opportunity, Portland still pales beside more established film markets. L.A., New York, San Francisco—even Seattle—have overwhelmingly more jobs, more major studios (Portland has one, LAIKA), production companies (Portland has about 60 of 'em) and spinoff dollars to offer its local artists.

Film people, who don't rake in the poshest paychecks here, on average make $41,400 per year, about 13 percent more than the average local worker. So why do they stay?

Lana Veenker, a former actor and the busiest casting director in town, had offers all over the country after working in London and Hollywood. But she chose to move back home to Portland—with a laptop and a cell phone—because she says she could work here on great scripts without selling her soul to a grim corporate agency. And she could still find time to indulge her passions for walking and for motorbiking across continents.

For Veenker, Portland was an antidote to the big-city film biz, its schizophrenic hours and sunglasses-at-night attitudes. The city's more generous production pace and tightknit film community are the incentives, she says, to stay here and work.

In fact, it seems like the Hollywood/LAIKA boom is helping everybody—except, perhaps, local directors. Although Kulongoski's perks are available to all film productions, in or out of state, independent filmmakers who work well beneath the required $1 million budget are not eligible for any of the incentives.

Portlander Rebecca Rodriguez, a veteran independent director whose feature Coming Up Easy (made for half a million) recently won the Best Feature Award at L.A.'s Reel Women International Film Festival, says the financial outlook for independent directors who want to stay in Portland and make movies is bleak: "We found that we couldn't sit across from investors and paint a pretty picture anymore," Rodriguez says. "It's not fair to them or their money...a lot of films simply [will never] find distribution."

Financial assistance for local directors would take the edge off of the grueling task of fundraising and increasing production costs. Of the Greenlight incentives Rodriguez says, "They're great...if you already have a chunk of change."

Nonetheless, Rodriguez hopes the state's incentives and the new Hollywood dollars they attract will sift down to the independent scene in the long run. "They do benefit a whole group of people that feeds the crew base. When it does come time to make my movie, I have experienced people I can draw on...who have worked for eight months, made some money and are willing to work on my film [for nothing]."

If and when Hollywood jumps ship for a new "it" town, Portland's film workers will remember that nagging feeling that the next great job was just around the corner. But, for now, everyone in the industry seems confident that the spell Greenlight Oregon and Tinseltown have cast on Portland will linger and stick, as thick as L.A. smog.

And, just in case, people like infomercial queen Katie O'Grady always have Plan B: "I was serious when I said I clean a great toilet."


Visit oregonfilm.org to check out what new productions are currently shooting in Oregon.
 
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