Lessons Learned from the Film Commission

So!  I ran a film commission for a while, before I finally left it a few weeks ago.  In celebration of that, I thought I’d share a few random stories of that time.  Sounds simple enough, let’s go!

So, one of the first bits of filming activity we brought to the area was one of those tv shows recreating real world crimes.  In this case, we were lucky enough that the local police department got really interested in the project, and sent their SWAT team out on an official “training exercise” that consisted of doing whatever we needed to get some good shots for the show.  Ostensibly, they were just taking the opportunity to train up on how they’d react to the same situation the production company was recreating, but they let the director dictate what they were doing, had a bunch of actors mixed up with the real cops, and generally prioritized doing stuff that looked good on film ahead of any practical matters.  Your tax dollars at work.  Anyways, we had them in formation, tactically surrounding the restaurant we were set at, looking very serious with all their serious SWAT gear.  And we had to deal with people interrupting us constantly.  Basic sense is that when you come across people heavily armed and ready to throw down, you got the other way.  Instead, possibly because of the cameras showing this wasn’t dire, we had to deal with a huge amount of people just stopping to look, trying to spark up conversation with the police in formation and lurking around the building, or walking in front of leveled weapons.  The worst part came when we had a SWAT sniper set up on the roof across the street from the restaurant, firing at the imaginary perpetrator within.  Now, this was a very real officer, firing a very real rifle, albeit with fake bullets, into a restaurant window, and yet we still had people trying to cross through the line of fire.  No sense of self-preservation

I don’t know who researches things for films, but they’re a lot better at finding things within my own community than anyone I know.  We have a business that trains dogs to help people survive the apocalypse.  We have an actual business set up to discover old treasures lost by the French.  There are a lot more professional ghost hunters in the area than I thought possible.  We have someone here who specializes in making castles out of whatever he can find in the landfill.  None of which I would have known about if someone didn’t call me asking about putting them in some tv show or other.  And if those are lurking, hidden, in my community, just think of what might be in your hometown.

You know all those reality shows, like America’s Next Top Model or whatever, where they air auditions to get into the competition, and it seems like half of those going in for auditions are just so absolutely insane that they almost have to be putting on an act?  Well… yeah.  Turns out that the prospect of being on screen brings out a lot of people like that.  We had a major motion picture coming to the area, and were helping a casting company put on the casting call for local extras.  The casting director was wanting to make it a fun experience for everyone involved, meaning she hired circus performers and brought in some live alligators, but they also had a public stage, where they encouraged hopefuls to hope up and perform whatever came to their heads.  That stage caused me brain damage.  For every one person that performed something worth watching, there were ten putting on an utterly bland performance, and fifty so bad that I tried to eat my own face.  And at least half of the performances were bad Monty Python ripoffs.  Stupid parrots, stupid lumberjacks, stupid spam diners, all that stage did was make me weep for my lost innocence.

People trying to get in front of the camera can be pretty desperate.  I imagine that’s especially true in areas like mine where there are only a handful of paid acting opportunities a year.  How people handle that desperation varies greatly.  At the top are those who are simply proactive about it, making sure I have their resumes in case anyone asks about a position they fit or volunteering with the film commission in order to keep themselves connected with what’s going on.  At the bottom… well, once I had a woman offer to sleep with me in exchange for help getting a minimum wage extra part with no actual guarantee of screentime.  At least, I think that’s what her intention was.  It’s possible she just chose the absolute worst time to come on to me.  But even on top of that, there were those who waited in line for hours at the aforementioned casting call when they clearly didn’t meet the requirements of the roles we’d been posting everywhere.  There were those who went so far as to stake out my office to try and get phone numbers of people working on the film.  There were those who attempted to fake their ethnicities to try and land a role.  Film is a tough, tough industry to get into, especially when you’re looking to get in front of the camera.  That said, there’s a line there, and plenty of people who are willing to go way beyond it.

I think a large part of that desperation comes from the fact that for as powerful and far-reaching the film industry is, it’s actually quite small.  One of our advisors was a former prop master who retired in the nineties, yet even so any time we had a feature film in our or one of the surrounding areas, he knew at least a couple people who were working on the production.  For all the work Hollywood produces, and for all the people trying to make it in the industry, they only really use a small pool of workers, and if you spend any time working behind the scenes you’ll end up seeing a lot of the same faces over and over again.

Because of the way the film industry works, and in part because of the prevalence of film commissions like mine, it seems films rarely are actually shot where they’re set.  I live in a part of the country that’s been romanticized in a lot of older pop culture, and I’ve gotten a lot of interest in recreating rustic scenes in the style of older material.  Thing is, though, locations tend to be chosen based on the financials of the situation more than anything else.  Film is big business, so a lot of states and countries offer incentives to spend their money out there, basically paying back a chunk of the production budget they spend in the region.  My state, not so much.  There’ve been more than a few films coming out set in my section of the country, but actually shot in Canada.  We, in turn, have doubled for places like California, Montana, and the Midwest, when production companies found it economical for us to do so.

When I first started out, I always thought that films were meticulously planned out, with everything following a rigid structure decided on by the highest authorities with little room for flexibility.  Since then, I’ve found that things are never quite as solid as that.  Any film production, even the smallest of indie stuff, still has a lot of moving parts involved, and because of that, things go wrong constantly.  Weather turns against you, you don’t have the resources you thought you would, what worked out on paper just doesn’t fit on screen, random acts of God, whatever.  Productions do plan things out as much as they can, yes, but it seems that once you’re filming, operations are far more about rolling with whatever comes along and trying to make something good out of it than anything else.  Flexibility is key; it seems that there’s always a hundred different details that you didn’t expect, and the main thing that seperates a good production from a bad one is how they handle it.

I’ve found that, by and large, people working in the industry are quite friendly and helpful while they’re working with you, but have a tendency to absolutely forget about you once their job’s done.  I’ve had people go out of their way to get me the information I requested from them, go above and beyond to help me make sure they’re leaving a good impression for their industry on their community, and be incredibly flexible to help make my job easier.  Those same people often make promises to get something to the film industry as thanks for our help, almost always either a thanks in the credits or a copy of the finished work, and that has never happened.  It’s easy to be cynical about that, thinking that they were only helpful while they wanted my help then kicked me to the curb when they didn’t need me anymore, but I think it’s something more innocent than that.  As mentioned above, the film industry is surprisingly small, and oftentimes, you’re only employed for the duration of one production, before the whole team is disbanded.  A lot of people find jobs in the industry through personal referrals, and to get that, you need to have impressed on someone that you’re pleasant to work with.  Hence, they’ve gotten in the habit of being helpful.  However, since the industry tends to drop people from their jobs as soon as the production is finished, they’ve just gotten in the  mindset that once filming is over, they’re just done with it, no more involvement from them, and they put everything they’ve had to do aside to focus on the next project.  Even if it does leave your humble regional film commission director in the lurch.

The exception to the above that I’ve experienced at least are those people successful enough in the industry to become household names.  Now, I’ve only interacted with a few of them, so I can’t quite claim to have gotten a representative sample, but by and large, those with recognizable names have been quite helpful to me.  The big thing that kept the film commission going had been raffling, auctioning, or otherwise selling off autographed memorabilia.  And the ‘hey could you sign some stuff so we can make money off of it’ conversation was always way easier than I thought it would be.  They were always really helpful in getting me in contact with their staff, having stuff through the mail on time, and generally were always easy to work with to get us what we needed, even after they’d left the area long behind.  Again, I think this plays into the fact that you need to be pleasant to work with to keep getting called back, so those who really make it in the industry would need to be remarkably easy to work with.  On the other hand, never give an actor/actress a pen.  You will never see it again.

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3 responses to “Lessons Learned from the Film Commission

    • Thank you for reading. At the least, assuming you live in America, your area is probably represented by someone at the state level. They aren’t typically the best at pointing film in the direction of small towns, hence why we started up our own regional film commission, but the possibility’s there.

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