Final Cut

The St. Louis Film Office loses its funding and closes its doors

The St. Louis Film Office shuts down on Dec. 31 as a result of a lack of funding. Maybe the city should have stopped while its film legacy was secure.

In 1981, B-movie auteur John Carpenter selected our city as the ideal location to portray a postapocalyptic Manhattan in Escape From New York. Back when B-movies were really B-movies -- before they became $150 million blockbusters -- it didn't take much to make St. Louis' abandoned inner city look like a maximum-security penal colony, which is what the Big Apple was in this futuristic nightmare vision of 1997. Kurt Russell, wearing an eye patch, played his greatest role: Snake Plissken, enlisted to break into the hellhole that is New York (played by St. Louis) to rescue the president of the United States after Air Force One goes down in a land George W. wouldn't want to visit in his dreams. With a supporting cast of Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton and the irrepressible Adrienne Barbeau, this was a classic on which St. Louis should have rested its film laurels. No doubt it's arguable that St. Louis filmdom never got any better than this, but around the RFTat least one staffer says he can never see the old Chain of Rocks Bridge without thinking of Adrienne Barbeau.

A look at what came after doesn't stimulate civic pride in the phrase "on location in St. Louis." In National Lampoon's Vacation, the Gateway Arch serves as a visual one-liner; White Palace is forgettable despite the charms of Susan Sarandon; the Bill Murray vehicle Larger Than Life didn't make anybody forget Caddyshack; and the recent Chinese feature film The Treatment (Gua Sha) turned out to be a below-average soap opera. Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill and George Hickenlooper's The Big Brass Ringare undoubtedly the highest-quality films produced in St. Louis, but neither has near the film-history significance of Escape From New York.

"The past couple of years have been absolutely the worst for the film business in this country. It's been devastating," says St. Louis Film Office director Jim Leonis.
Jennifer Silverberg
"The past couple of years have been absolutely the worst for the film business in this country. It's been devastating," says St. Louis Film Office director Jim Leonis.

It hasn't been for a lack of trying. When Jim Leonis became the head of the St. Louis Film Office in 1997, he had a budget of some $300,000, with the city, county, Civic Progress and the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Center pitching in. But it wasn't long before those political bodies decreased their investment in making St. Louis a viable option for Hollywood. In 1999, the Film Office lost a quarter of its resources when Civic Progress cut back its funding efforts. Last year, nothing came from the county. "We lost a third of our money there," says Leonis. "Now, this year, with the city falling out, it pretty much made it impossible to go on."

The city's "falling out" accounted for $75,000, a third of the Film Office's budget, when the funding was cut from city appropriations. "My understanding is that because of the financial situation with the city," says Leonis, "as it was explained to me, 'We've got to start cutting the budget or we're going to start taking police off the streets.'"

It's not as if the Film Office was putting feature-film crews on the streets, although that is not how Leonis wants to measure success. Rather, he refers to the increase in the number of union production crews, in the availability of equipment and the burgeoning independent scene. For the Film Office-sponsored St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase last July, 115 films were submitted. "Here, unlike other cities where you have long-established unions, where it's only the people and their cousins that are getting into these things for years, here a lot of the union people are also the independent filmmakers," says Leonis. "They can work on their films; they can also get good-paying jobs by working on commercials or getting on some of the features that have been here. It's really been a good dynamic that way."

Local filmmaker and Webster University professor Kathy Corley concurs with Leonis' assessment. "This is very distressing news occurring at the most inopportune time," she says. "Things are really consolidating and taking off," for local filmmakers, she says, and the Film Office has been a part of that. "With the new technology, with digital filmmaking and all of the things that are going to happen in the next generation, there's going to be more and more film produced all over the country. It's really sad if we don't have an office to help coordinate all those things."

St. Louis hasn't exactly become Movietown USA, but it's for more reasons than a two-person Film Office can account for. "The past couple of years have been absolutely the worst for the film business in this country. It's been devastating," says Leonis. "California has lost over 30 percent of their production in the last two years. It's really been a crisis in this country for production."

It's still cheaper, much cheaper, to film in Toronto -- and Toronto can be made to look like just about anyplace. The great New York romance Moonstruck, for instance, was filmed on location in Toronto. "It's impossible to compete [with Toronto], on two levels," Leonis explains. "Their dollar is only worth about 60 cents to our dollar. Then they put enormous incentive programs on top of that. It can go up to 35 percent of your labor that they'll rebate you. That's tough to compete with."

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