Final Cut

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

Nov 21, 2001 at 4:00 am
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 RFT at 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 Ring are undoubtedly the highest-quality films produced in St. Louis, but neither has near the film-history significance of Escape From New York.

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."

Toronto has some 60 film productions going on at any given time. St. Louis has a Japanese crew coming in to work on a documentary this month. St. Louis doesn't have a Harold Ramis (a Chicago native) or Barry Levinson (from Baltimore) bringing work back to his hometown, either.

But that's no reason to throw in the towel, says Linn Sitler, executive director of the Memphis and Shelby County Film Commission. She has a two-person staff as well, but even though film production is down everywhere, Sitler is keeping Memphis visible to filmmakers in Hollywood and around the world. She's elicited the services of a recruiter in Germany ("because the Germans have all the money") and another in LA. The Memphis commission sponsors a film festival and IndieMemphis, which features local filmmakers, and she's on her way to LA this weekend for the inaugural B.B. King's Memphis Mississippi Delta Homecoming. "We're inviting all our past and present clients for a private reception, barbecue, Jack Daniel's Lynchburg Lemonade. B.B. King is performing. We have gift bags with Moon Pies and music CDs." She laughs. "We're so cheesy. Maybe that's why it works."

They know how to do things down in Memphis, and they won't be shutting down their film office anytime soon. "Cutting your office is just the worst," says Sitler. When she's told that St. Louis Film Office duties may be taken over by the CVC, she responds, "Absolutely the worst idea. You know why? First of all, when you do get a film in, those filmmakers want your undivided attention. Secondly, if the tourism bureau gets hold of the mission, then they're only going to want the films that shoot in the nice parts of St. Louis and say nice things" -- meaning that a classic such as Escape From New York would never come along again.

"It's very shortsighted and a real shame economically for the city," says Sitler.

St. Louis isn't alone in shortsightedness. Kansas City's film office is on the endangered list as well, says Jerry Jones, director of the Missouri Film Commission. The city has agreed to fund the office until April 30, 2002, with just one full-time staffer. A board has formed, led by former Mayor Richard Berkley, to seek funding beyond next year.

In St. Louis, in the meantime, Jones plans for the state office to have "a higher presence ... to keep everything running as smoothly as possible." He's talking with Leonis and the CVC about plans to maintain the Film Office's Web site and its indispensable production guide, a listing for filmmakers to find everything they need in town, from caterers to film labs to stuntpeople (including one local professional who says he "can be hit by car").

The state has cut Jones' budget as well, by some 25 percent in these lean economic times. "They're not picking on us," says Jones. "They're hitting everybody." The state commission's current $110,000 operating budget, he says, "still gives us enough to operate and do what we need to do and help out where we need to help out."

Jones says he's also been talking to J. Kim Tucci, head of the Missouri Film Commission board, about ways to fill in after the demise of the Film Office. Tucci did not return the RFT's phone call, but imagining the Pasta House king as a movie mogul, telling Spielberg to "forgetaboutit," has a certain cinematic appeal. Would he wear an eye patch?