By Sean CW Korsgaard, Progress-Index
PETERSBURG — The Dixie Restaurant has a sign on the door boasting about Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” having filmed there, not far from where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks filmed their upcoming comedy “Ithaca” on Sycamore Street. “Mercy Street,” which wrapped filming in June, saw crowds of costumed actors and actresses fill Olde Towne Petersburg for weeks. Daniel Radcliffe, best known for playing the title role in the “Harry Potter” franchise, has become a local darling for sampling and praising the region’s food and nightlife while filming and promoting his upcoming movie “Imperium.” Recently, Revolutionary War spy drama “Turn” announced they’d be returning to Petersburg to film its final season.
Hollywood has come to Petersburg, and if things continue to pick up, they aren’t leaving anytime soon.
The South has drawn attention from Hollywood over the past couple decades, with Georgia and North Carolina proving favorites for filming and production locations, but its Virginia that has turned more heads in Hollywood in recent years, for both the rich variety of historic locations and natural scenery to serve as buildings, and our large pool of historic reenactors and community theater to pull actors and personal from. According to Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office, the key to Virginia’s growth has been that while other states offer tax money or grants to bring in movie productions, state officials focus on selling Hollywood on Virginia.
“In Georgia, they have over $250 million a year in tax credits they’re able to provide to induce this business, while in Virginia, we have less than $10 million per year.” said Edmunds. “We compete by selling them on Virginia rather than bribing them to come here, we show them our variety of historic and natural locations, or our pool of available talent, and it’s paying off, as the Commonwealth’s film production industry has grown exponentially in recent years.”
Virginia has long chased the dream of turning the Commonwealth into a major destination for filmmakers, as far back as former Gov. and Sen. George Allen having pushed to have “Gods and Generals,” and even getting a cameo in the film. That tradition of both courting filmmakers and earning cameos has been carried enthusiastically by both former Gov. Bob McDonnell, schmoozing with Steven Spielberg on the set of “Lincoln,” and Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who in addition to making cameos ranging from “Mercy Street” to “Turn,” has been a vocal advocate for filming in the Commonwealth.
“The Commonwealth of Virginia offers filmmakers an incomparably versatile backdrop, having served as the picture-perfect location for projects from the 17th century through today,” said McAuliffe. “I am excited to see the continued success of our film industry as we work to build a new Virginia economy, and to play my own role in that.”
In 2015, visitors spent $23 billion, supporting nearly 222,600 jobs and contributing $1.6 billion in state and local taxes. In 2014 the economic impact of the film and television industry in Virginia totaled $414 million and $59 million in state and local tax revenue. Andy Edmonds is always quick to point out the impact the film industry has on the economy, the free advertising it gives the region, and how it promises to grow even larger still.
“Every time we have a movie or television show filmed here in Virginia, it highlights the wealth of what the area has to offer, not just to Hollywood, but to tourists,” said Edmonds. “When an episode of ‘Mercy Street’ sweeps over Petersburg, or Daniel Radcliffe tweets about this steakhouse he’s eating at, it’s one of the best advertisements you could ask for.”
He also points out that 2016 could well be the watershed year that finally puts Virginia on the map as a go-to filming location, and the Tri-Cities area specifically. “Mercy Street” and “Turn” are both set to return to Petersburg to film their upcoming seasons. “Imperium,” an action thriller which was filmed in Hopewell, is set to open later this year, as is “Loving,” a biopic about Richard and Mildred Loving, and was filmed almost entirely in and around Petersburg, and has earned rave reviews at Cannes and is already attracting Oscar buzz.
As for what draws filming locally, and to Petersburg specifically, Tom Trigo, a veteran Hollywood locations manager, who has worked on productions from “War of the Worlds” to “Lincoln,” and in Petersburg on both “Ithaca” and “Mercy Street,” thinks he has the answer.
“Petersburg offers a condensed area of historically intact buildings, all within a core area, offering different streetscapes that can be shot from multiple angles, and different era backdrops, Old Towne Petersburg for the Civil War or Revolutionary War era, Sycamore Street for the 1940s or 50s, it’s a living breathing setting that beats even the best studio back lot, which is a dream come true for many filmmakers,” said Trigo. “To top it all off, we get such support from the locals and local government, and Petersburg is such a magnet because it offers a combination that you really can’t find nearly anywhere else.”
That’s not to say our region’s journey in becoming a Hollywood hot spot has been without issue. According to Joel Rhodes of the River City Film Society, more can still be done.
“One of the things that all these productions could do more of is pull from the immense pool of local talent we have here,” said Rhodes. “It’s great to have all these movies and shows filmed here, but they could do more to employ the people who live here rather than flying a crew in from Hollywood, which is a shame, because it certainly could become one of our biggest selling points.”
Even that may begin to change, as some locals have begun to use the attention and limelight brought by Hollywood to set up local production companies of their own. Here in Petersburg, Waukeshaw Development, a locally-based revitalization firm, has backed Studio 219, a turn-key production studio that offers the best gear, an isolated sound stage, and housing for 30 crew to boot hoping to attract micro-budget filmmakers to the city.
Virginia as a whole stands ready to have its breakout moment as a stage for Hollywood, and Petersburg stands ready to be one of its key players.