Image courtesy of Jakob Owens on Unsplash
Lights, camera, economic action, right? After all, it worked so well for New Zealand. Even now, 20 full years after the release of the third installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, tourism to that country, and to the former sets, has continued to boom.
Stateside, there really isn’t anything that rivals the potential for hobbit house selfies – though not for lack of trying.
“Well, we all wish we could have a Lord of the Rings,” says Guy Gaster, director of the North Carolina Film Office, “with legacy tourism and multiple films down the road. Everyone wants that. Just everyone.”
Nationwide, film commissions (similar to convention and visitors bureaus but created for the sole purpose of attracting show business to specific areas), are proliferating. But while they all have the same goal, their structure does not follow any template; they can be private non-profits, public-private partnerships, government line departments or divisions of economic development agencies or cultural offices. Sometimes, they are hybrids of a few of these.
The complexity of the organization, says Peter Hawley, director of the Illinois Film Office, also can vary, often based on the organization’s role and how it goes about attracting business.
“Some organizations are tied directly to tourism, and some are tied directly to revenue because of the tax credits and financial incentives being offered,” Hawley said.
Hawley’s organization falls into the latter category. Last year, the Illinois Film Office brought in more than $700 million in business. North Carolina had a total of $416 million in 2021, its highest-grossing year to date; in 2022, that total was $276 million – which Gaster says is more typical.
At the same time, Hawley notes, it is common for there to be multiple organizations within a state; Illinois also has the Chicago Film Office, the Northwest Illinois Film Office and the Quad Cities Film Office, among others.
The film industry can bring excellent economic impact to communities. And filmmakers are, in fact, very interested in finding locations that provide more interest and more atmosphere than a Los Angeles soundstage.
North Carolina, for example, was where the first Hunger Games movie was filmed. And Gaster admits he had his doubts once he learned the premise.
“We were asking ourselves, ‘How is an audience going to respond to a battle royal with kids killing each other?’ The potential for a series was there but the studio at the time wasn’t sure how much of a success the project was going to be.”
Fortunately, The Hunger Games was a tremendous hit and there are still fan tours to different areas featured in the movie. But tourism to film sites is perhaps the least of the reasons film commissions do their work; after all, a movie’s popularity might fade after a while, and with it, the tourism, (the Lord of the Rings trilogy appears to be the exception to that rule).
According to Gaster, the industry of film is multi-layered in its impact on the local community.
“It’s true, you have a cast of actors that comes to town, but that cast is really small compared to the people working behind the cameras and on the set.”
In addition to offering locations, North Carolina has multiple studios, as well as professionals trained in film production. Productions coming to the state are able to access local workers rather than bringing in additional personnel. Colleges in the area offer coursework in film production to train a ready workforce. As a result, film production dollars stay in the state.
“The incentives we offer are meant to encourage filmmakers to give jobs to people who are already here. If you think about it, the camera person or the lighting technician might be the person ahead of you in the school carpool lane. They’re the people shopping in the same grocery stores as you. These are your neighbors and friends,” said Hawley.
Hawley adds that there is the merchant economy to consider, including “people who are benefitting directly from hotel stays, restaurant visits, catering jobs, dry-cleaning business, and more..”
That’s not to say residual tourism isn’t important and fun. Lake Lure, North Carolina, for example, where parts of the 1987 teen classic, Dirty Dancing, were filmed, hosts a Dirty Dancing Festival each year, complete with movie screenings, watermelon carries, dancing lessons (oh, and the chance to practice those lifts in the lake).
Another community that has planted its flag on the hill of movie tourism is Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where parts of the sci-fi movie, The Blob, were filmed in 1954. Every year, BlobFest is held there, complete with showings of the movie – during which all those in the theater need to run out screaming as though pursued by The Blob, just like the actors did in the original Blob movie.
Some areas capitalize on their movie fame, even though they did not host famous scenes. Wabasha, Minnesota, the setting for Grumpy Old Men (1993) and Grumpier Old Men (1995), is one of those.
“We don’t actually have any filming locations here,” says Courtney Schaefer, Executive Director of the Wabasha-Kellogg Area Chamber of Commerce & Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The town’s name was used, and some backdrop shots were too.”
Image courtesy of Chris Murray on Unsplash
Wabasha doesn’t care. Every year, it hosts the Grumpy Old Men Festival with movie screenings, ice fishing, spaghetti dinners, and other activities. In that sense, it’s not unlike Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, is set there, but filming took place in Woodstock, Illinois, which was deemed more picturesque. (Both locales host Groundhog Day festivals).
Hawley recommends that communities with a serious interest in attracting film business take an inventory of the advantages they provide.
“You want to be able to tell filmmakers, ‘We’re film friendly. Here are the resources we have.’ In addition to having financial incentives and tax breaks, permitting should be easy. Filmmakers should know there is room to park, caterers who can feed them, hotels where people can stay.”
A database of settings that make a community unique, in terms of landscape, historical sites or other factors, is a good marketing tool.
And, Hawley notes, if a film commission is to be created in the office of a CVB or an economic development corporation, it is best to put one person in charge of making outreach to filmmakers, rather than having that person stretched across multiple roles.
Gaster says that a community’s flexibility is the ultimate litmus test of its suitability to host filming.
“How does the community react to things like parades and festivals, when the main street is closed? These are the kinds of questions a potential production will ask. If a community shies away from disruption, this may not be a good avenue to pursue.”
For those who want to host filming, however, the rewards are great.
“I like seeing people get jobs in the industry; I like seeing the business grow here,” says Hawley.
So, what was his favorite Illinois-based production?
He laughs. “All of them. All of them are my favorite.”