Cleveland’s History in the Film Industry Gives Promise for its Future

When you drive through downtown Cleveland, you would never guess it is the home to an illustrious film industry. However, the city might as well be considered the budding Hollywood of the Midwest. In addition to its historical connections to some of the earliest motion pictures, Cleveland currently plays a pivotal role in the filming of many popular movies – including “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Avengers” – and its influence over Hollywood-level productions is only growing. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

Cleveland’s place in the film industry dates back to the 19th century. Just two years after the Lumière brothers screened their short films in Paris for the first time, inventor and Ohio native Thomas Edison produced a film of his own in Cleveland. The “Giant Coal Dumper,” an 1897 short documentary showing how coal is loaded at the Erie Railroad Docks, set the stage for Cleveland’s role in production.

The 20th century was an even more exciting time for cinema in Cleveland. Spearheaded by a Plain Dealer Screen Magazine director and filmmaker Samuel R. Brodsky (also known as Samuel R. Bradley), Cleveland thrived as a hub for the film industry in the 1920s. The city even had its own film studio, during a time when much of production was already limiting itself to New York, Chicago and Southern California. The earliest films also allowed Clevelanders to participate in an industry that usually only served people in the Hollywood sphere. In 1915, the first feature film made in the city, “The Love Chase” included a cast made up of local amateur actors, and even included a cameo from the mayor at the time, Newton D. Baker. Evidently, the film only screened in Cleveland, but the production provided work and cultural significance for the city itself.

Samuel R. Brodsky directing cameraman Ernest M. Reynolds during the filming of “House without Children.” Image courtesy of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission.

Cleveland couldn’t keep its hold on the film industry forever, and eventually, most film productions moved to Southern California for its favorable weather conditions and geographical versatility. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, filmmakers began looking for cheaper alternatives for filming – and Vancouver, Canada started to become a prime location. In order to bring the industry back to the United States, states began adopting tax incentives for film and television productions. This opened a new door for Cleveland as a filmmaking hub. 

In 2009, Ohio passed the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit to bring more of the film industry to the state. While some dislike the credit — Policy Matter Ohio says it’s expensive and inefficient — the movement allowed Cleveland to become an integral part of filming for extremely popular films like “The Avengers” (2012) and the Academy Award-winning film “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021). According to the Greater Cleveland Film Commission (GCFC), over 300 productions have been filmed in Cleveland since 2007, a number that is largely attributed to the Motion Picture Tax Credit.

Bill Garvey, the current president of the GCFC, says Cleveland’s infrastructure now plays the most integral role in its ability to become a home for future productions. In “Avengers” and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the city’s ambiguous downtown made perfect locations for a fake New York City or Chicago, but the city’s outskirts are ideal for movies that take place seemingly in the middle of nowhere, like the suburbia location of “The Kings of Summer” (2013).

“We do have [a] diversity of architecture … that is a chameleon.” [Cleveland can] look like so many other cities. That versatility is so key to attracting [an array] of different storytelling. Garvey said. “It’s just [a matter] of waiting to be tapped into and leveraged to economic benefit.”

Ohio is not the only state with a film-based tax credit. According to a study by Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office, 32 other states, including California, New York and Georgia, land 75 percent of film projects. But …

In addition to Cleveland’s array of topography – including cityscapes, farmland, and beaches on the coast of Lake Erie, the Ohio Tax Incentive Credit continues to bring bigger and more popular productions. According to Garvey, in comparison to other cities, Cleveland’s tax credit is a pretty good one, offering a 30% tax credit on productions, with a $40 million cap. In 2021, over $190 million was spent on film production within Ohio, and $106.6 million of that was spent in the Cleveland area. Productions using this incentive must keep their spending within the state of Ohio, creating jobs and cash flow within the area.

Moviemaker Magazine even named Cleveland the 14th best city in the country to make movies.

Ohio tax credit. Image courtesy of Ohio Development Services Agency.

Film tourism is also a thriving industry in Cleveland with plenty of room to grow. “The Christmas Story” house from the 1983 Christmas classic, located on W. 11th Street, opened in 2006. It’s currently open for tours and overnight stays year-round. Currently, the home averages about 80,000 guests per year and recently went up for sale.

“There’s a powerful value that movies can bring to a state. There already is some movie tourism going on in our state as it is, but obviously the more production, the more iconic movies that you bring here, the more of that added value [of] tourism and [there is] the shining spotlight on your state, as well,” Garvey said.

Lawmakers recently agreed to extend the tax credit program to include live theater productions, post-production work and promotional expenses. Projects will now be evaluated and ranked based on competitive criteria twice a year as opposed to the previous first-come, first-serve operation. The credit allows up to $40 million a year in tax breaks and refunds 30 percent of what is spent in Ohio. Since 2009, the credit has helped 119 projects, of the $250 million authorized, only $120.7 million has been refunded.

The only thing holding Cleveland back from becoming even more successful in the film industry, Garvey said, is its citizens’ lack of awareness of its benefits to the community. Filming is a notably private affair so not many Clevelanders are aware when production is taking place and adding to its economy. According to the Motion Picture Association, however, film production pays out over $27 billion annually to over 359,000 businesses across cities and small towns. Currently, the film industry is responsible for 15,640 jobs and over $1.07 billion in wages in Ohio.

Image courtesy of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission.

A new studio space in Cleveland would bring even more opportunity and might also solve the city’s unawareness with the booming industry. Marquette Williams, a Cleveland native and Hollywood filmmaker, is seeking to provide a brick-and-mortar space with his plans for Cleveland’s own “Cinema City.” 

Williams’ project would bring studio sound stages on the city’s east side with a hands-on film school. If completed, the campus would contain a 150,000-square-foot studio with four sound stages, housing, retail and space for e-sports and artists. Williams believes the Cinema City could generate 1,000 quality jobs in the first five years. However, the project has mostly stalled in the last year. Williams said in an email that they are looking for local guarantors, but the small tax incentive is one of the biggest problems.

Luckily, the lack of studio space doesn’t necessarily deter filmmakers in need of sets for production. Garvey notes that just last month, a Netflix project used the vacant Walmart building in the Severance Town Center mall. The use of vacant office and retail spaces is how Cleveland currently makes up for its lack of studio space, though Garvey and GCFC support Williams’ project, as it would surely bring even more productions to Cleveland. 

The Greater Cleveland Film Commission continues to work to solidify Cleveland’s place in the film industry. The GCFC advocates for further advantages to the existing tax incentive, maintains and creates relationships with studios and producers for future projects, and educates about the opportunities that already exist for filmmakers in Ohio. Garvey hopes to bring a new generation of filmmakers to Cleveland – and pushes back on the idea that you need to go to a coastal city to be successful in the industry. 

“I’ve been there. I’ve experienced it,” he said, of his experience working in New York. “I think [Cleveland] is the best place to make movies. That’s why I’ve been here for 14 years. It’s a filmmaker’s Shangri-La.”

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