How to Shoot in D.C.

6:00 AM PST 03/13/2012 by Tim Appelo

A decade after 9/11, Hollywood cautiously returns in search of authentic backdrops for buzzy political projects.

It has gotten harder to shoot movies and TV shows in the security-obsessed District of Columbia, says location manager John Latenser -- but lately, ingenious filmmakers have found ways to sharply increase production. "I've shot at the Supreme Court, and we shot The West Wing at the White House," he says, "and it used to be easy to film at Union Square." But when Latenser tried to do a scene for Julia Louis-Dreyfus' forthcoming HBO comedy series Veep at Union Square, he discovered Congress had effectively (and secretly) banned filming there in December. Latenser pulled strings and got Veep a permit anyway.

More showbiz players are invading the capital, including Netflix's $100 million Kevin Spacey series House of Cards. According to Crystal Palmer, director of D.C.'s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, film and TV production business in the capital was up 66 percent in 2011 to $20.5 million.

And it's a diverse lot scoping the Hill for locations in 2012. "Right now, there's scouting for Ben Stiller's untitled HBO project, USA Network's pilot Political Animals and Tyler Perry's The Marriage Counselor," says Palmer. "With an operating budget of $600,000, we're one of the most profitable agencies of government."

But D.C. still faces a fight for producers' dollars as titanic as the robot battle in Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which spent more than $2.4 million filming there in 2010. Although Washington has never had a more pro-Hollywood mayor than Vincent Gray -- he's the first in the city's history to visit Los Angeles and New York to woo filmmakers -- Gray's and Palmer's July visits to lobby HBO, Netflix, CBS and the MPAA yielded mixed results.

They'd hoped to land Veep and House of Cards, but both wound up shooting less in D.C. than in neighboring Maryland, which offers $7.5 million a year in tax incentives. "Maryland offered Netflix $12.5 million in incentives for House of Cards over two seasons," says Palmer. (Maryland Film Office director Jack Gerbus thinks the incentive won't exceed $11 million.) "Netflix producer John Melfi said, 'If you give us $3.5 million, we'll guarantee you about 12 weeks of filming in D.C.' We had 72 hours to put the money on the table."

They couldn't because unlike many states, D.C. has no financial incentives to offer (though Gray is commissioning an incentives study). "We didn't get the whole enchilada, but we got a piece," says Palmer. "Veep has shot in D.C. six times, and we'll probably get three to four weeks of House of Cards."

The film office also helps with Hollywood's biggest complaint to Gray: red tape. "We'd love to shoot in D.C.," says Alex Gansa, co-creator of Showtime's D.C.-set political drama Homeland, which shoots largely in Charlotte, N.C. "But it's too scary. If President Obama wants to cross town, they can pull your film permit at the last second." Notes Latenser, "There are 30 police jurisdictions in D.C."

To help deal with such red tape, D.C.'s film office rolls out a red carpet for filmmakers and goes to bat for them. After the Union Square ban, Palmer helped negotiate a 90-day extension for filming there, which enabled Veep's permit. "We're stepping up our game," says Gray.

The secret to capital filmmaking is simple: Hire locals who know the ropes. "I know every street and cool, secret tunnel," says Latenser. "It's worth jumping over the hurdles to get what you want. If you can shoot the real thing, why not?"

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5 FAVORITE D.C. FILM LOCATIONS

  • The White House: "We filmed The West Wing there under Bush," says Latenser. "Ironically, it's Congress that's most obstructive to commercial filmmaking."
  • Federal Triangle: The Federal Triangle's historic look gave the JFK drama Thirteen Days its period flavor. "It's got amazing buildings from the 1920s and 1930s," says Latenser.
  • Lincoln Memorial: West Wing's president, Martin Sheen, haunted the Lincoln Memorial, and Megatron seized Lincoln's throne in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
  • Union Square: In December, Congress transferred Union Square from the film-friendly U.S. Park Service to the security-conscious Capitol Police -- no friend to filmmakers.
  • Union Station: Union Station's stunning architecture enhances movies like Wedding Crashers. "It looks toward the Capitol, which anchors you in D.C.," says Latenser.
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