Becoming the third coast
By Bob Abelman
Humble beginnings. There is no better way to describe the School of Film & Media Arts at Cleveland State University.
CSU had no film program until the fall of 1977, when one faculty member was hired to teach a few courses in film history and film appreciation for the Department of Communication. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that an additional faculty member was hired to teach some basic small-format production courses on very limited equipment in a very finite studio space with a very restricted budget.
By 2005, the department became a school and, over time, its film sequence became one of the most popular programs.
Today, the new School of Film & Media Arts, with tracks of study in writing/directing, cinematography, writing/producing, post-production, interactive media and acting/directing, calls a 36,000-square-foot space on the sixth floor of Idea Center in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square district its home.
With two new 2,000-plus-square-foot sound stages with 24-foot ceilings, state-of-the-art teaching laboratories, digital editing bays, professional production equipment and a viewing room/theater with 7.1 surround sound and a commercial theater-quality projection system, the program is the only stand-alone, degree-granting film school in Ohio.
At the Idea Center ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new school in 2018, Greg Sadlek, then-dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences, had this to say: “With the solid growth of the film industry in Northeast Ohio, this new school may just make it possible for CSU to become the most important film program in the Midwest.”
“We want to be prepared to say ‘yes’ – not ‘have you checked out Pennsylvania?’” said Ivan Schwarz, then-president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission. He noted at the ceremony he was hoping the promise of a trained student workforce “will attract more film companies to the area and help build the Cleveland film industry.”
Humble beginnings and huge expectations.
And … action
The School of Film & Media Arts was Schwarz’s idea. The mission of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission is to build a year-round, sustainable film and television industry. That means attracting out-of-state production companies to Northeast Ohio, which would create jobs and bolster the local economy. One prong of the plan was to create “something new and shiny – a flagship film production program that will create a skilled and well-educated workforce,” recalls Cigdem Slankard, the Film & Media Arts program’s interim director.
“I chose CSU over other schools in Northeast Ohio because it’s in Cleveland, which offers a wide range of shoot options,” Schwarz says. “But also, all the top film programs in New York and California are housed in four-year institutions, which can not only offer the technical training required for production but deliver the higher education needed to produce well-rounded content providers like screenwriters. And CSU has a proven track record for growing professional-grade applied programs.”
After meeting with state legislators to secure $7.5 million in funding to grow a high-profile film program, Schwarz met with CSU’s movers and shakers to discuss whether they wanted it. As inspiration, he, Sadlek and then-CSU President Ronald Berkman took a road trip to California to visit film schools at the University of Southern California and Chapman University.
“When you actually see a successful film program in action,” Schwarz says, “it becomes real and viable.” In fact, the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman, located in Orange, Calif., would become the template for CSU’s own film school.
In 2017, with funding appropriated from the state of Ohio and a $1 million gift from Lee and Ageleke Zapis and the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation, the existing film program – with its small core of faculty and invested students – was extracted from the School of Communication, bolstered with a new curriculum and became its own entity, the School of Film & Media Arts.
Frederic Lahey, a prominent scholar, writer, director and former head of the Colorado Film School – which Lahey built from the ground up – was hired by CSU to be the film program’s inaugural director. In fall 2017, 65 new students were admitted.
In fall 2018, the fledgling program moved into its new Idea Center facility along with an additional 111 newly admitted students.
According to Lahey, there are currently 383 matriculating majors, with the goal of enrolling 500 students in the first five years of the program.
The Cleveland film scene
Over 300 productions – commercials, documentaries, independent films, studio feature films, music videos, public service announcements, television shows, video games and web series – have been filmed in Ohio since 2007, according to the Greater Cleveland Film Commission.
Some of the most notable films made in Cleveland include “Band of Brothers,” “The Fate of the Furious,” “The Bronze,” “Draft Day,” “Bad Grandpa,” “The Kings of Summer,” “Fun Size,” “Unstoppable,” “The Soloist,” “Spiderman 3,” and “American Splendor.” More recently, “Cherry,” “The Enormity of Life,” and the Oscar-winning “Judas and the Black Messiah” have used Cleveland as a backdrop.
As was noted in a feature story in cleveland.com, the producers of two superhero movies from the Marvel universe spent a combined $80 million on goods and services while on location in and around the city. “The Avengers” was filmed here in 2011, blowing up 20-some cars along East 9th Street in the process. And homegrown directors Joe and Anthony Russo used Cleveland to shoot “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in 2013, which featured a fight scene on the West Shoreway.
The Greater Cleveland Film Commission estimates that, over the past decade, film industry activity has resulted in more than $1.1 billion in economic impact on the state level, most of which was in Northeast Ohio. Through this activity, 6,192 full-time equivalent jobs in Ohio were created, with most situated in Northeast Ohio.
A major reason film studios have come to the state is because of the Ohio film credit incentive program, created in 2009. The Ohio Development Services Agency offers refundable credits to film companies for up to a quarter of what they spend in the state and 35% for Ohio resident wages, with a cap set at $5 million per film and $20 million per year. The credit was increased to $40 million at the time the new film program was put into operation.
As studios come to Cleveland, CSU film students are finding employment. Most notably, three recent graduates were hired for positions on the locations team for “Wheat Germ,” an original movie by Netflix. Bill Garvey, the film’s location manager and the new Greater Cleveland Film Commission president, noted that “CSU has produced good kids.”
For film program graduates who did not have an opportunity to work on a big studio production during their education, like Elyria native Gregory Elek and Vermilion born Eric McGuinn, they have found little work in Cleveland and have taken their talents to Los Angeles and Cincinnati, respectively.
Still, they have nothing but good things to say about the CSU program.
“We made a lot of productions in our classes, which were great learning experiences,” says Elek, “but I learned the most from discussions with faculty who were also practitioners. This insight allowed me to hit the ground running in LA”
McGuinn says, “The technical elements of production that I learned at CSU directly applied to the commercial shoots I helm for a creative agency.”
COVID-19 has served as an interesting litmus test for the film industry in general and the growing CSU film program, and the results have been mixed.
Slankard and her faculty have worked hard turning a virtual education experience into an adequate placeholder for in-person learning. Adding a degree of flexibility to the curriculum allowed students to pivot and make different kinds of movies than they had originally intended. But the CSU program is not yet in the position, technologically, to make the same kind of accommodations as, say, the film program at Chapman University, which converted one of its storage spaces into a state-of-the-art virtual production studio. This allowed students to continue production projects by filming against an LED wall that simulated hyper-realistic environments rather than risk actual location shoots.
And while some studios are returning to Cleveland for post-pandemic production, the comparatively limited financial incentives that Ohio offers to filmmakers have proven to be a handicap. Georgia, for example, has an uncapped tax incentive for the film industry and, in 2017 alone, out-of-state studios spent $2.7 billion.
Ohio’s current credit of $40 million is not nearly enough to be competitive, and while efforts are being made to increase the credit to $100 million, there has been very little headway. Fewer productions mean fewer job opportunities, resulting in fewer students staying in or moving to Cleveland. New student enrollment for CSU’s film program has dropped over the past two years. And, says Lahey, it has been “challenging to attract faculty with an MFA and professional experience for our part-time ranks” and grow the program.
Because the pandemic is requiring the entertainment industry to install COVID-19-related precautions during production, new conversations about the harmful and unsafe work taken on by freelance filmmakers during typical productions – including 18-hour workdays with no lunch, low pay and unsafe conditions – have flared up. While that may not seem good for film school enrollment, a deal was finally reached between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees – the union that represents 150,000 behind-the-scenes workers and, now, some CSU graduates – and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, representing major studios. It’s possible that news, leading presumably to better pay and better work conditions, will encourage interest in the field.
But according to Schwarz, COVID-19 has actually been a missed opportunity for the Cleveland film industry. He says he believes that other states have better positioned themselves to accommodate studios that are looking to reboot. He cites actor/director/producer Tyler Perry’s ingenious creation of “Camp Quarantine” at his sprawling studio in Atlanta, which has the sound stages required to continue producing episodes of four TV shows, including BET’s “The Oval” and “Sistas,” during the pandemic.
“With some forward thinking,” Schwarz says, “Cleveland could have had a sound stage and technology campus for studios to work in. The last two ‘Avengers’ movies really wanted to shoot in Ohio, but we didn’t have the infrastructure or the incentive in place.”
“If you build it,” he adds, with reference to the CSU film program, the state’s tax credit and a sound stage in the footprint of the city, “they will come.”
Ironically, the quote is from the movie “Field of Dreams,” which was shot in Iowa and provides no tax incentives to lure filmmakers. Instead, says the state’s film commissioner, Liz Gilman, “we offer friendly communities and beautiful landscapes, require no film permits and have the lowest costs for doing business in America.”
Iowa is also a right-to-work state. That’s certainly another way to build a local film industry.