Less than two years ago, Ivan Schwarz said goodbye to his house, Los Angeles and his job as a location manager for HBO’s “Entourage.” Essentially, he traded his place at the epicenter of California’s entertainment industry to try to build us one.
“My colleagues thought I was crazy,” he recalls. “But [my wife and I] had just had a baby, and I didn’t want to raise a kid in L.A. We visited Cleveland and loved it. We asked ourselves, ‘Can we make this work?’ ”
Since 2007, Schwarz has been the executive director of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission — an organization he first became familiar with when its former head and founder, Chris Carmody, helped him scout Northeast Ohio locations for HBO’s “Band of Brothers.”
Though Cleveland has been prominently featured in smaller films such as “American Splendor” and “Antwone Fisher” and made a cameo in last summer’s big-budget “Spider-Man 3,” Schwarz is now championing the Ohio Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit, a proposal currently before the state Legislature.
If it passes, moviemakers could claim a 25 percent tax credit on films made here. It is modeled after similar incentives in other parts of the country, including neighboring states Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“It would be like opening a new Goodyear plant in Cleveland,” Schwarz says of the financial impact the tax credit could have on the local economy.
While that claim sounds lofty, a Team NEO study estimates a $14 million film would create the equivalent of 145 full-time jobs during its production. The trickle-down effect of meal expenses, hotel costs and payroll taxes would provide an additional economic boost.
“Just 15 seconds of ‘Spider-Man 3’ brought millions of dollars to Cleveland’s economy,” says Ohio Rep. Tom Patton, a Republican from Strongsville and sponsor of the bill. “Ohio is missing out on a revenue generator.”
The tax credit bill passed the Ohio Senate last year. But following some technical changes, the House never had a chance to vote on it.
The bill has already been introduced this year. Testimony and a vote on it had not been scheduled at press time, but were likely to take place this spring, according to Patton’s office.
If the tax credit passes, the city has a shot at landing Nehst Studios (pronounced “next”), a New York film company.
“We want to bring the film industry to new places, and we like Cleveland,” says Larry Meistrich, founder of Nehst Studios. He produced the films “Sling Blade” and “You Can Count on Me.” “We’ve looked at industrial cities that need a new industry. It’s expensive to shoot in New York — the city is full. The emptiness of Cleveland is an advantage for us. You can close off a street really easily here.”
Meistrich recently ran a film workshop at Cuyahoga Community College, which attracted about 40 aspiring filmmakers. He wasn’t shy when asked about the tax credit.
“It’s a deal breaker,” he says. “I have a responsibility to my shareholders. If Michigan offers me a tax credit and Ohio doesn’t, why would I come here?”
Schwarz would like to turn the underused Cleveland Convention Center into a production facility. He says the accessibility and office space make it an ideal spot. Meistrich agrees, adding that he could see the building used in such a way about 150 days a year.
He says Nehst Studios would also create new jobs, including an influx of production staff from New York. “How do I know they’ll move?” Meistrich asks, laughing. “They make a union wage — about $80,000. In New York, this barely pays rent. Here, you can buy a house and raise a family on that.”