Portland's Bustling Indie Film Scene Prepares for Its Close-Up

A 2008 study showe tdhat the film industry contributed $708 million to the state's economy—and that number is expected to rise this year.

By Aaron Scott February 11, 2011 Published in the March 2011 issue of Portland Monthly

SCENE: A SATURDAY NIGHT IN JANUARY. About 150 filmmakers, crew, and actors gather in a new production studio in Southeast Portland to toast the release of three locally produced feature films. In the 4,000-square-foot soundstage, actors—hair coiffed with enough gel to impale a casting agent—work the room. Conversations begin with “Who represents you?” They end with extended thumbs and pinkies: “Call me!”

There is no red carpet. The directors aren’t household names. But the size of the gathering and its venue, Indent Studios—a $2 million, state-of-the-art facility—speak to the escalating ambitions of Portland’s movie scene.

The local film industry is on the cusp of a banner year. Six features from Oregon premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival, including How to Die in Oregon, a documentary about assisted suicide that nabbed a prestigious grand jury prize. This month, renowned transplant Todd Haynes hits the small screen with the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. Homegrown director Aaron Katz’s sly, Portland-shot detective tale Cold Weather opened this winter to strong reviews and decent box office. Later this year, local icon Gus Van Sant will look for another idiosyncratic hit with Restless, shot in North Portland.

Oregon’s movie business has been big business for some time. A 2008 study found that film and television production directly contributed $709 million to the state’s economy in ’07. Given recent productions as varied as Van Sant’s feature, the satirical cable series Portlandia, and TNT’s crime drama Leverage, that number is likely growing. The Governor’s Office of Film and Television says it expects 2011 to be its biggest year yet.


Film stills, from top: The Falls; The Weather Outside; Cell Count; Some Days Are Better Than Others; Widow’s Walk Lake

While national productions get the most attention, the crucial transformation is happening at the grassroots level. Portland directors, producers, writers, technicians, and actors will release a slew of intriguing small projects this year, in genres ranging from two-fisted black comedy to Christian-themed horror. This community thrives on volunteer crews far more than on big-budget work. But it could breed the next generation of Van Sants and Hayneses, and help make Portland a go-to place for outside filmmakers—and their money.

The scene at Indent revealed a community built on both diversity and collaboration. In one corner stood Justin Koleszar, a master connector who organizes a monthly indie-film networking event. Koleszar’s own debut feature, One Foot in the Gutter, appears this spring. He shot the gritty drama about working-class friends on a microbudget of $15,000. “When I lived in Arizona, I couldn’t find anyone to help,” he said. “In Portland, I found four of six major roles in the first day of auditions.” Most of his cast and crew worked for free.

This generous milieu produces wildly varied material. Brothers Todd and Jason Freeman recently finished shooting two movies: The Weather Outside, a comedic noir, and Cell Count, a sci-fi thriller filmed in the empty Wapato Jail. Just last spring, they wrapped a Christian horror movie. In contrast, James Strayer’s forthcoming spooky children’s fable, Widow’s Walk Lake, strikes gothic, Edward Gorey-ish notes. Longtime local filmmaker Matt McCormick’s Some Days Are Better Than Others looks like a dose of downbeat realism, while national up-and-comer James Westby’s Rid of Me twists the Northwest up in black comedy. Movies about Sasquatches, gay Mormon missionaries, and Iraq war veterans suggest not so much a unified local style as an anything-goes ethos.

“You can do anything you want here because of the rebel attitude of the city,” says Todd Freeman, who has directed in Portland since 2002. “And Portland has [access to] desert, city, rural.”

The larger goal of Indent, with its sophisticated soundstage and editing facilities, is to help harness these ?local assets to make Portland a de facto Hollywood backlot, with skilled pros but without snarled traffic. (As Indent founder Tim Whitcomb likes to point out, an LA-to-Portland flight can take less time than a drive across LA itself.)

There’s no formula for such a coup, but government can help. Departed governor Ted Kulongoski spearheaded tax credits and a 50 percent boost to a state investment fund that aids (and attracts) productions. On occasion, he even personally called producers to lobby them on shooting in Oregon. Some major productions landed in Oregon under Kulongoski’s predecessor/successor, John Kitzhaber, too. As he starts his sequel, Kitzhaber has already included a $10 million boost to the state incentive fund in his budget.

Artists, certainly, are all in. Daniel Baldwin, an actor and brother of Alec, moved here last year and bases his own production company at Indent. This showbiz lifer sees Portland’s potential. “Long gone are the days of knocking down trees,” Baldwin says. “If we can make movies for a minimum amount of money and build our reputation, trust me, LA will come up here.”

More Californians? In this case, we’ll make an exception.

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