News » News Lead

The Last Picture Show

The Cleveland Film Commission tried to lure Hollywood to the Midwest. Now it might be taking its final bow.


The man in black leaned out the helicopter's open door, steadied his bazooka, and carefully took aim at the Detroit-Superior Bridge.

To drivers crossing the span, the helicopter looked no more threatening than a news chopper, though somewhat closer to the ground. Most were just focused on getting to the other side.

That's when the explosions started: a flash of orange flame and then a hollow, rolling thunder. Passengers could feel the heat from behind their closed windows. The bridge trembled. A dark cloud of soot wafted over the Cuyahoga. Car alarms blared across the flats, triggered by the shock waves.

Below, people screamed with excitement. The crew had just captured the money shot for a made-for-TV action movie titled Bet Your Life.

But the people in the cars -- $50-a-day extras -- knew that something was wrong. The explosion had been more powerful than anyone had expected.

That was a surprise, considering how carefully choreographed the shoot had been. The Cleveland Film Commission had spent months convincing the city that the explosion would be safe. Earlier that day, the city fire marshal and bridge engineers had watched a trial run and signed off on it.

But before cameras rolled, the pyrotechnics team added gasoline bombs to the effect, says Jeff Horvath, chief engineer for the bridge. "They lied to us. They didn't use what they told us they were going to use."

The special effect ended up doing $60,000 worth of real damage to the bridge. It would take 11 months and several phone calls from Horvath before the city saw a dime from the film's insurance company.

"They blew out of town," says Horvath. "We gave them everything they wanted. They got their action scenes, and then they left."

For Chris Carmody, the 37-year-old president of the city's film commission, it was just the latest in a long line of burned bridges.

Back in 1998, when Carmody founded the commission as a nonprofit organization, his goal was to rival Pittsburgh's $25-million-a-year film industry within five years.

Unfortunately for the local economy, he failed to live up to his own hype. Worth a stagnant $5 million annually, Cleveland's movie industry is no closer to Pittsburgh's than it was when the commission began.

Now the commission's treading water and running out of energy. Last year, it sank into the red by $100,000. To save money on rent, the commission is moving from the Terminal Tower to a cheaper space in the Galleria.

Until earlier this month, Carmody was flirting with the idea of running for mayor. Instead, he's going to make one last-ditch attempt to save local filmmaking. Come what may, he plans to leave the commission at the end of this year, depriving it of its face man and loudest voice.

Which means that the film commission may soon be facing its final curtain call.

If only John Hughes had lived in Ohio. The Breakfast Club could have been shot at Rocky River High. Macaulay Culkin could have waged war against burglars in Westlake. And Cleveland could have been a contender.

Hughes began shooting his campy films in Chicago in the early '80s, a time when Hollywood was just beginning to scout around for fresh locations. Before then, most movies were filmed on studio back lots in California or on location in New York.

"A lot of people climbed the ladder on his films," Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office, says of Hughes. "It helped to train a big part of our crew base. Hughes put Chicago and Illinois on the map for Hollywood."

As the studio system became travel-friendly and filmmaking technology became more portable, other cities got in on the action. Throughout the '80s, nearly every major metropolis set up its own film commission to coordinate requests from producers and secure the permits they needed to shoot in town.

The cities reaped rich rewards on their modest investments. The Untouchables pumped nearly $20 million into Chicago in 1987. Rain Man, the 1988 movie starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, infused $25 million into Cincinnati's economy.

The money didn't just go into deep pockets, says Pittsburgh Film Commission President Dawn Keezer. "It's really the little guys: the dry cleaners, the florists, the office-supply people, the car-rental people, the carpenters, and the electricians."

Cleveland was late joining the party. Cincinnati launched its commission in 1987, but Cleveland continued to rely on the state's film office in Columbus, which wasn't much help to productions scouting locations in the Northeast.

By 1998, it had become clear that if Cleveland wanted to compete for Hollywood money, it couldn't afford to wait any longer. That's when Chris Carmody entered the picture.

A short kid with shaggy hair, a prominent nose, and a tendency to lapse into childish giggles, Carmody hardly seemed the type to lead the charge. But his twin interests in film and local politics made for a potent combination.

He had fallen in love with movies as a boy. A child of divorce, Carmody was close to his mother, a foreign-language expert who encouraged her children to explore the fine arts.

"She just always pushed our curiosity, pushed us to be interested in the world," he says.

Lacking movie-star looks, Carmody tried to write his way onto the set. While at St. Ignatius High, he won a local playwriting contest. After his junior year at Oberlin College, he took a summer internship reading slush-pile scripts for a New York production company.

Julie Cohen, Carmody's boss at that time, remembers the energy he brought to the office. She's been looking for his name in film credits ever since. "I assumed he wanted to become a writer or a filmmaker," she says.

But Carmody had developed another passion: city politics. Upon graduating with a degree in English literature in 1988, Carmody joined the campaign to elect Michael White, who was waging a hard-fought battle against Tim Hagan and George Forbes for the mayoral seat vacated by George Voinovich.

When White won, the 22-year-old phenom was rewarded with a job as a top aide in the mayor's administration, where he focused his efforts on the city's troubled schools. In 1991, Carmody led a successful campaign to elect White's hand-picked slate of school-board candidates. They passed an operating levy that the schools had needed for years.

Yet Carmody was eager to get out from under White's shadow. In 1995, during the mayor's second term, Carmody left City Hall and earned an MBA from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve. Then he set out to launch a local film commission.

Carmody's first stop was the Gund Foundation. During his stint in the mayor's office, Carmody had befriended a number of its board members, including Robert Jaquay, the foundation's assistant director.

"He caught the eye of our fund-raisers," Jaquay says.

The foundation, impressed with Carmody's pitch, awarded him a grant to study how to get the commission off the ground. He used the money to travel the country and learn how other cities' film commissions operated.

Carmody discovered that while most were branches of a mayor's office, some had been created as private nonprofits. This appealed to Carmody, because it meant that he would be free of bureaucratic interference and able to remain at the helm as long as he liked.

The arrangement wouldn't sit well with White, however, who liked having the upper hand, as he did with the mayor-controlled school board. So instead of approaching the city, Carmody courted White's political opponent, Tim Hagan, who had since become a county commissioner.

Hagan had one foot in Cleveland and the other in Hollywood -- as evidenced by his wedding a few years later to the captain of Star Trek Voyager, Kate Mulgrew. Carmody's plan to court the film industry appealed to the commissioner.

"He articulated a clear vision of what it could mean if there was an attitude to shake Cleveland from its inferiority complex," Hagan recalls. "He wanted to redefine the city."

With Hagan's support and a new grant from the Gund Foundation, Carmody started the film commission in 1998. He hired a staff of two and set up a modest office at the Terminal Tower.

Yet even with this humble beginning, Carmody felt confident enough to make a grand prediction. He told Inside Business that he hoped to make Cleveland competitive with Pittsburgh's $25-million-a-year film industry.

At first, no one other than Carmody seemed to understand what the commission was supposed to do. Local actors called to ask about auditions. Aspiring screenwriters sent scripts. Directors begged for money to produce their first feature.

Meanwhile, the commission quietly laid the groundwork for a local film industry. Carmody compiled a database of tradesmen who had TV or movie experience. He flew to trade shows in L.A. to schmooze location scouts. And he cut through red tape at City Hall to streamline the permitting process.

For three years, it was all preparation and no practice. Aside from a few commercials and smaller made-for-TV movies, Cleveland was off Hollywood's radar.

Then, in the summer of 2001, three features arrived at once.

The first was Welcome to Collinwood, a bungled-crime caper delivered with sardonic, deadpan humor. The script by Anthony and Joe Russo had been picked up by Section Eight -- the production company of George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh -- after Soderbergh happened to catch a short film directed by the Cleveland natives.

The production tested the film commission's capabilities with a scene that called for five streets to be shut down around Broadway and East 55th. But Carmody proved up to the challenge. Though Collinwood was hardly a box-office smash, it launched the careers of the Russo brothers, who took home an Emmy last year for the TV series Arrested Development.

At the same time, the commission was putting together the crew for The Year That Trembled, a coming-of-age film focused on the Kent State shootings and the Vietnam draft. It was based on a novel by Chagrin Falls author Scott Lax and produced by his nephew, Tyler Davidson, who was fresh out of film school.

Making the movie meant taking over the town of Garrettsville, a small hamlet south of Kent, for an entire month. Although the movie ultimately flopped in theaters, any disappointment with the commission would be short-lived.

Of the three movies that came to town in 2001, the one thought to be least marketable was American Splendor. A quirky biopic about Harvey Pekar, Cleveland's cranky comic-book auteur, and starring Paul Giamatti, then virtually unknown, the movie seemed destined for indie oblivion.

The conventional wisdom couldn't have been more wrong. The movie made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. The screening ended with a rare standing ovation. American Splendor ended up taking home the jury prize for best dramatic feature at the most prestigious festival in the country.

The night of the premiere, Carmody and his staff, who had flown out to Utah for the festival, celebrated at a brewery on the summit of a mountain. No one cared that they were toasting with mugs of near-beer in a dry state. Cleveland had just produced the most-loved film of the fest, and it had happened under Carmody's watch.

"It's a good movie," Carmody says with a satisfied smile, "and something I think people will watch for a long time."

Emboldened by his success, Carmody began looking for films to poach from other cities. In 2002, the Meg Ryan flick Against the Ropes was scheduled to shoot in Detroit. The producers were scouting locations in Michigan when their cell phone rang.

It was Carmody. He talked up Cleveland's New Deal architecture and promised to shut down Public Square for a full day of shooting. He told producers that since they had come all the way from California, they owed it to themselves to drive a measly three hours southeast to see what Cleveland had to offer.

They agreed, and Carmody landed the highest-budgeted movie ever to shoot in Cleveland.

"We did the scout with them, and they rewrote the script for Cleveland," Carmody says with a delighted giggle. "They rewrote the script!"

Yet even as Carmody was savoring the commission's triumphs, the movie industry was changing.

Since the mid-'90s, Canada was gobbling up more and more production from the States. Studios found that Canucks could offer cheaper labor in a place where the dollar already went further. And Vancouver and Toronto had soundstages, something American cities outside Los Angeles had been slow to embrace.

To get back in the game, states began passing generous tax incentives. Louisiana, which offered productions 10 percent of their budgets back if they hired local workers, saw its share of the industry increase by $180 million. Pennsylvania followed suit, eliminating sales tax for films. Austin converted an abandoned airplane hangar into a soundstage and saw an immediate return of $75 million.

"It's way tougher than it used to be," says Rich Moskal of the Chicago Film Office. "The first question out of a producer's mouth is 'What incentives can you offer?'"

Carmody could see Cleveland falling behind. "It's an arms race of incentives," he says. But there was little he could do about it. The commission's independence from local government was now its greatest obstacle.

"I think it's much more effective to have a city office that can speak to other city offices," says Moskal. "If we as the mayor's office are calling people, they know that this is the mayor's concern and has become a priority."

Cleveland desperately needed incentives that only politicians could grant, but state legislators turned a deaf ear to Carmody's pleas. "Why would we want to create a tax break for Tom Cruise?" they asked.

Without incentives to woo producers, Cleveland lost projects. One was The Human Stain, the Anthony Hopkins-Nicole Kidman drama based on the book by Philip Roth. The city couldn't match the tax credits offered by Montreal, so the $30 million production went north.

"We were pretty much the finalist for that project," Carmody says.

Still, not all of the commission's failings were beyond Carmody's control. Some in the local film industry fault him for not doing more to secure a soundstage. In fact, the city granted Carmody permission to convert the abandoned Aviation High School at Burke Lakefront Airport, but he turned it down in hopes of landing a better facility.

"It's sitting there empty," says one local production executive. "If it was on their agenda, then why wasn't it a priority?"

The lack of a soundstage may have helped cost the city at least two opportunities.

When a script called The Battle of Shaker Heights won HBO's second Project Greenlight filmmaking contest in the spring of 2003, the project -- a combined reality show and movie headed by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck -- was courted by the commission, which hoped to convince it to shoot in the real Shaker Heights.

But without a soundstage, the production would have been at the mercy of Cleveland's temperamental climate. "The one thing they couldn't offer was the weather," says producer Jeff Balis.

Another project Cleveland missed was the pilot for HBO's Band of Brothers, a World War II miniseries directed by Tom Hanks. Producers were looking for a town that could approximate the heartland look of 1940s America. The commission offered nearby Milan, about an hour east of Cleveland.

But England, where the rest of the series was to be filmed, offered the use of an abandoned airline hangar as a soundstage. It was deemed cheaper to build all the sets there, and Cleveland lost a $12 million payday.

"We put a lot of effort in, and we thought we had a decent chance," Carmody says of the project.

Unable to compete the old-fashioned way, the film commission began cutting corners. First came the damage to the Detroit-Superior Bridge. Then came a series of questionable decisions surrounding the recent production of The Oh in Ohio.

The movie, starring Parker Posey and Danny DeVito, follows the quest of an otherwise happily married woman as she seeks to experience an orgasm for the first time.

But that's not how production coordinators described it when they approached Shaker Heights High School about shooting in the school's science lab. They submitted a cleansed synopsis, deleting all reference to what The Oh was really about.

"We were just told it was Danny DeVito, and he played a science teacher," Peggy Caldwell, director of communications at Shaker High, said at the time.

When a curious secretary looked up the film online and discovered that it wasn't PG, as advertised, the school pulled out. "We didn't want to get involved with a movie our students couldn't see," Caldwell said.

Rather than accept responsibility for the sham, Carmody went on the offensive. He blamed the media, suggesting that its reporting of the incident threatened the livelihoods of local film crews.

"If there's bad word-of-mouth, the money will dry up for Clevelanders trying to work in film," Carmody says.

Yet he's hardly a credible defender of blue-collar workers. In order to help pay for the L.A.-based crew The Oh brought with them, local wages on the movie were slashed. Production assistants who had been making up to $175 on their last gig were given $80 -- which amounted to less than minimum wage after a typical 16-hour day.

Carmody compounded his insensitivity by letting his younger brother, a New Yorker, take a job with the camera crew that could have gone to a local.

But if Carmody's head wasn't in the commission's business, it may have been because he had weightier matters on his mind. He was pondering a run for mayor.

Last month, Carmody stood in front of a small crowd of friends and film-commission board members at the Garage Bar and said that it was time for a change at City Hall. He never said that he intended to run for mayor, but everyone in the room knew he was considering it.

Among his biggest supporters was Jim Bennett, a headhunter from the New York-based consulting firm McKenzie & Company and chair of the Cleveland Film Commission.

"He is very committed to having the city be an easy place to do business with," Bennett said last month. "If there's any issue that has really gotten business people at the end of their rope, it is the difficulty of getting quick decisions and smooth approval on things from City Hall."

Carmody wasn't the man to do it. He dropped out of the campaign a few weeks ago, even before it had really started. He realized that he wouldn't have the union support needed to defeat Jane Campbell.

"He wasn't a candidate that really could have the ability to win," says John Ryan, head of the local AFL-CIO and until last year, chair of the film-commission board.

Carmody didn't bother to send out a press release announcing his decision. On the phone, he seems disappointed, frustrated by another lost opportunity.

But it's not just his political ambitions that he's abandoning. Carmody is also planning to leave the film commission by the end of this year. He notes that he initially committed to stay on for five years and has already been there for seven.

"There is a point where I will step aside soon to do something different," he says. "That is because I think, at the end of the day, someone who is young and energetic and full of ideas can bring those things to this organization."

His likely successor is Christina Grozik, the commission's vice president. A former model and sometime actress, she worked as a production assistant on Collinwood and is familiar with local politics.

"Christina has worked in [the Department of] Parks and Recreation with the city," Carmody says. "She also has experience with the city bureaucracy, so that made her an astonishing catch."

Whatever her qualifications, she will inherit a commission that increasingly looks to be on wobbly legs.

Tax returns show that the commission has a deficit of $100,000 -- a quarter of its annual revenue. Last year, Governor Bob Taft cut the annual stipend the state gives the commission from $75,000 to $40,000. And the commission recently packed up its office for a move to a cheaper space in the Galleria Mall.

A call to the Gund Foundation reveals that the commission's grant ran out seven months ago and isn't scheduled for renewal.

When asked if the commission might shut down this year, Grozik will neither confirm nor deny the possibility.

Jim Meltzer, vice-chair of the commission's board, says that it's "aggressively pursuing projects." But when pressed for specifics, he can't recall the name of a single project.

Carmody denies that the commission is in financial trouble. "The short answer is that we will be submitting a new proposal to the Gund Foundation and other public partners this spring," he says.

But even that would be only a Band-Aid. Carmody knows that if the commission and the local film industry are to survive, they will need the support of state legislators.

In his final year with the commission, Carmody will lobby for a tax-incentive package similar to Louisiana's model. The proposal would grant free use of a state-owned facility for a soundstage and substantial tax rebates for locally produced films.

"We are going to push very hard for strong state-wide incentives," says Carmody. "Absent that, we're never going to break out of the $5 million range."

But with a Republican-controlled legislature that has already slashed its contribution, this Hail Mary seems unlikely to connect.

To some, it's debatable whether the commission ever really accomplished anything. After all, most of the big films it landed had some tie to the area already.

"I know the commission works hard to bring shows here and productions sometimes choose to shoot here," says Adam White, who has worked on the crews of several films and commercials. "I'm not sure if the two are connected though."

Ken McCann, the spokesman for the electricians' and grips' union, agrees. "My feelings are, a movie goes to shoot where the location for [the story] is."

More critical rebukes come in hushed voices, from dark corners of a film set. "Everybody local says, 'What do they do? What are they there for?'" says a local production executive.

The mayor's office says it will do what it takes to save the city's stake in the movie business. "We can rally around the film commission's cause," says Chris Ronayne, chief of staff for Mayor Campbell. "Do we want to bring it into the mayor's office right now? We'd be willing to look at the pros and cons of that . . . Give me your suggestions. Let's do this together, Chris."

Desperation seems to have set in at the commission. The mood is tense and paranoid. Boxes are stacked around the office. Phone calls from reporters are greeted with a terse "No comment" and forwarded to Carmody.

When a photographer shows up to take Carmody's picture, he shoos him away. "There's not going to be any pictures with boxes," he says.

Coming from a man who has spent so much time courting the limelight, it's a troubling sentiment.


We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club for as little as $5 a month.