Path to Greatness

Courting The Silver Screen

Can you say "Pollywood"? How Oregon is turning movies into big business in Portland.

By Anna Hirsh May 19, 2009 Published in the February 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

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I’m standing on the expansive green lawn of a romantic château high on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, imagining that I’m about to make out with a vampire.

Specifically, I am about to make out with Edward Cullen, the smoldering undead teenage hero of Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster Twilight novel series and, of course, the new movie. Thirty-one years old and married, I’m embarrassed to admit that I read all four of the five-hundred-plus-page books for young adults in less than a month, and that I’ve seen the movie—twice. And now, on this misty December morning, I’m here at the historic View Point Inn to walk in Edward’s footsteps. “This is exactly the spot in the movie where Edward and Bella danced at their prom,” Roman Moreno, one of the inn’s sales managers, is telling me.

Flocks of fans like me (“Twilighters,” as we’re now known) have come to the View Point Inn, in Corbett, ever since scenes for the movie were filmed here last April. The shoot turned the Portland-area inn into a destination not unlike those found on celebrity-centric tours in Los Angeles or New York. Twilighters come from Canada, Europe, and all over the United States to dine on Bella’s Mushroom Ravioli or Eternal Love Chocolate Cake (its raspberry center bleeds when you cut it); to participate in themed slumber parties; and to snap up Twilight swag like T-shirts, key chains, and scarves made from the actual curtains visible in the surprise final scene. Interest in the inn has doubled since the film’s November release, says office manager Jennifer Coulson, who recently fielded calls from tourists from as far away as Australia and South Korea. To meet fans’ growing bloodlust for all things Twilight, the inn now offers a $250 tour of nine recognizable Portland-area locations from the movie. It stops at such sites as the Carver Café and Multnomah Falls, but also includes hidden locales like the parking lot where Edward saves Bella from a pack of would-be rapists.

The boost in business, in addition to the sizable location fee they received, has View Point owners Geoff Thompson and Angelo Simione loving Hollywood, and they aren’t the only Oregonians who feel that way. “Twilight saved our butts,” says Beth Melnick, a Portland-based freelance location manager who worked on the film. “It was the first winter I didn’t have to go to Los Angeles to work.”

Instead, Los Angeles came to her. Which is vaguely contradictory. We Portlanders love our movies—the city hosts nearly two dozen annual film festivals that celebrate cinematic achievements in everything from animation to soundtracks to adaptations of the works of gothic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft—but in a town that prides itself on keeping it real and keeping it weird, the more DIY, alternative, and experimental a film is, the better. The city’s status as an independent filmmaker’s playground is what helped secure Portland’s place as one of MovieMaker magazine’s 2008 “top ten movie cities.” Famed independent filmmakers who live or have lived here give Portland street cred in the indie world: current resident Gus Van Sant (whose most recent creation is the critically acclaimed Milk, an Oscar hopeful); transplant Todd Haynes, director of I’m Not There and Far from Heaven; notable experimental and documentary filmmakers such as Matt McCormick and Vanessa Renwick; and the writer-director Miranda July.

And lately, Portland also has lured more mainstream Hollywood productions. Bigger-budget flicks recently shot in Oregon—and thus paying Oregon business fees and taxes and purchasing Oregon goods and services—include The Burning Plain (Kim Basinger, Charlize Theron); Management (Jennifer Aniston, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn); the Oscar-nominated Into the Wild; Untraceable (Diane Lane); Without a Paddle: Nature’s Calling (NFL star Jerry Rice); The Road (Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall, Theron again); and, of course, Twilight. Between 2005 and 2008, the Governor’s Office of Film & Television recorded thirty-six feature film productions, fifteen of which had an average budget of $8 million—compared to seventeen similar productions between 2001 and 2004 that had an average budget of $2.1 million.

Of course, Hollywood doesn’t just decide to head north for nothing. Knowledgeable local crews and the state’s diverse landscape and architecture play a part, but the area’s recent luck with the silver screen really comes down to dollars and a bit of legislated good sense. The Oregon Production Investment Fund, Governor Ted Kulongoski’s film-industry incentive package, anchors Oregon’s bid to book more large productions. The fund offers qualifying film companies—those located here as well as those from out of state—a 20 percent cash rebate on production-related goods and services purchased in Oregon, plus a 10 percent cash rebate on wages paid to Oregon-based crews. To qualify, a production company must be registered to do business in the state and must spend at least $750,000 here. And film companies that spend more than $1 million can cash in on an extra 6.2 percent payroll rebate under the Greenlight Oregon program. Perhaps best of all, the incentives process puts cash in a production company’s hands within two to three weeks of filing the postproduction paperwork.

The Oregon Legislature passed the first incentives measures in 2003; the first rebates were issued in 2005. “In the last three years, we’ve exhausted the fund within the first six to eight months of each year—the demand far outweighs the supply,” says Vince Porter, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Film & Television, which coordinates the incentives program. Initially capped at $1 million in available rebates, the fund was increased to $5 million in 2007, but Porter and the film office plan to lobby the Legislature for another increase early this year.

Despite the recession, they just might get it. Oregon’s economy has always relied on timber and technology, industries that stand to suffer in this economic climate. The nation’s film industry, on the other hand, has performed relatively well amid financial turmoil—during the Great Depression, for example, a remarkable sixty million to eighty million Americans regularly turned to the cinema, an impressive audience, even if back then those numbers represented a considerable drop in attendance. “We have seen that, at worst, our product is recession-resistant, and at best historically has been up,” Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation SKG, told a meeting of studio executives in September.

In Oregon, more moviemaking means not only more revenue, but also more jobs. In 2007, the industry generated $1.39 billion (a 41 percent increase over 2005) and generated 13,336 jobs, according to the most recent ECONorthwest film industry report, commissioned by the governor’s film office. And every ten film and video jobs generate more than eleven jobs in sectors including restaurants, hotels, and utilities—and now tourism.

“The effect film has on tourism is remarkably strong,” says Michael Fine, liaison at the Mayor’s Office of Film & Video in Portland. Fine works with filmmakers who wish to shoot within the city limits, helping them secure locations and crew and ensuring they have the proper permits. Portland’s film permits are far more affordable and flexible than those issued by cities like Los Angeles and New York. The relative lack of red tape could make Portland all the more appealing to Hollywood producers.

Which raises the question: does Portland find Hollywood appealing? The city has been praised as a place where fame and fortune don’t matter, a sort of anti-mainstream metropolis where if you’re not starving, you’re not an artist. But as it turns out, many of the local filmmakers, alternative and otherwise, feel it’s possible to have their weird and work, too. Government courting Hollywood “brings money and jobs into the city and offers Portland some new excitement,” says Gretchen Hogue, director of the Portland Documentary and eXperimental Film Festival (PDX Fest), the city’s premier event for experimental, documentary, and otherwise obscure contemporary cinema.

A filmmaker herself, Hogue notes numerous Portlanders who make their living off the mainstream film industry as camera assistants, grips, sound engineers, and the like, while working on their own projects in the downtime. David Cress, a founding partner in the local production company Food Chain Films and a producer on Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, says that although he works on bigger films, he’s still able to oversee pro bono projects for Oregon Public Broadcasting, Portland Public Schools, the Salvation Army, and others. And Matt McCormick, founder of both PDX Fest and Peripheral Produce, an experimental film and video distribution label, says, “Plus, it’s just sort of cool to see your hometown [and] state in some fancy movie on the big screen.”

If the Legislature passes a bigger incentives package, Oregon might earn another pair of lucrative starring roles, in New Moon and Eclipse, two of the books that follow Twilight, for which Summit Entertainment has already purchased the film rights. Twilight ’s worldwide success means those films will have bigger budgets, which could exceed Oregon’s current incentives cap and cause the production company to look elsewhere. At the risk of giving away a vital plot twist in the Twilight saga, if Summit does decide to return, Oregon will have not only vampires to thank for pumping blood into the state, but also a handful of werewolves.

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