Lights, camera…traction? The challenge of growing film in Columbus

The city’s creatives are working to build the film scene from the ground up, but some are frustrated with local organizations like Film Columbus.
On the set of Jonathan Sherman's 2021 film "They/Them/Us."
On the set of Jonathan Sherman's 2021 film "They/Them/Us."Courtesy Jonathan Sherman

On a frigid Tuesday evening in late November, a few dozen members of the Columbus film community gathered at the Canzani Center at CCAD – the latest in a monthly series spearheaded and organized by Molly Kreuzman as a means of fostering a deeper connection among those in the local film world. 

Part social gathering and part networking event, Kreuzman said she initiated the mixers in an attempt to bring together the members of a creative community that can often feel siloed. Kreuzman hosted the first event at her house in June 2022, and 25 people turned up. In the 18 months since, the mailing list has ballooned to more than 205 invitees, with attendance in most months falling somewhere between 60 and 80 people, Kreuzman said.

The gatherings are held in a different location each month, with the room often reflecting a loose discussion theme. In January, for instance, Kreuzman hopes to host the growing collective at Natalie’s Grandview, with plans to extend invites to local musicians who create scores for films. This follows an October event at the offices of commercial production company Mills James, where Kreuzman attempted to bridge the gap that can exist between independent filmmakers and those engaged in commercial work. “I can guarantee you that everybody at Mills James at one time or another has done an independent project,” Kreuzman said. “That barrier between commercial and independent doesn’t serve any of us. We’re all filmmakers, and we’re all just trying to pay the bills.”

At the Canzani Center, following an hour of loose socializing, Kreuzman introduced the evening’s de facto keynotes: Celeste Malvar-Stewart, an adjunct fashion professor at CCAD, and 2020 fashion graduate Tracy Powell, both of whom spoke briefly about the role of fashion in film and the deep pool of local designers available for work. “We don’t need filmmakers to come from LA with their [fashion] teams,” Malvar-Stewart said. “We have so much talent here.”

This idea served as a recurring theme in interviews conducted since August with more than 20 producers, directors and crew members, a number of whom spoke to the grassroots efforts being undertaken to grow and better establish the film industry in Columbus.

These efforts range from Kreuzman’s gatherings to Girl Set, a new monthly workshop spearheaded by cinematographer Sydney Lawson and aimed at educating women, non-binary and trans folks on the behind-the-scenes trades, including electric, lighting and camera work.

In interviews, most lauded Columbus creatives’ desire to build the film scene from the ground up. But a number of people also expressed a degree of frustration with the organizations tasked with growing the film industry in the city, and in particular Film Columbus, which since 2015 has been led by commissioner John Daugherty. (Initially established as an independent body, the Greater Columbus Arts Council absorbed the film commission in 2019 after Columbus City Council approved the ticket tax – a 5 percent fee on arts, cultural and professional sports events that primarily benefits Columbus arts organizations via grants doled out by GCAC.)

“There’s a disconnect between what the film commissioner believes should be happening with film in Central Ohio and what we believe,” said filmmaker Joshua Clark, who would like to see the city employ more of an “inside-out model,” where resources are invested more heavily in the people living and working in Columbus rather than in trying to attract outside productions. “But the film commission, we’re swinging for the fences every two seconds. And the reality is that’s not going to happen. Feature films aren’t coming to Columbus – for reasons that can be rectified – but they’re not going to come here right now.”

Beyond these big-picture aims, producers and filmmakers interviewed raised concerns with Daugherty’s travel expenses, citing trips to Cannes Film Festival in France and Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and the perceived lack of growth experienced by the Columbus film industry in the years Daugherty has worked as film commissioner. 

Lachandra Baker, who served on the Film Columbus advisory board for five years and resigned the position three months ago, cited what she termed “a lack of progress” as her reason for stepping aside. “I didn’t feel like we had a real direction,” she said. “It seemed like a film commission in name only, so I thought I could spend my time in different ways, honestly.”

In a December interview, Daugherty countered that Film Columbus has continued to advance its mission in spite of its modest staff (Daugherty is the commission’s sole full-time employee, though he receives support from staff at GCAC) – a statement supported in interviews with Tom Katzenmeyer, president and CEO of GCAC, and Jami Goldstein, GCAC’s vice president of marketing, communications and events. Goldstein said Film Columbus shares a mission with GCAC, with Daugherty’s work concentrated in three areas: 1) Increasing the money coming into Columbus from outside television and film productions; 2) Increasing the financial support distributed to local filmmakers; and 3) Expanding the support network and crew base for all productions shot in Columbus. 

This year, Daugherty helped cultivate a grant program that doled out $50,000 to local filmmakers – this in addition to a pair of $25,000 Artists Elevated Awards given by GCAC to directors Jenny Deller and Noah Dixon, respectively – with plans to expand this amount to $250,000 in 2024. In 2023, GCAC also distributed $97,900 to 30 artists in film and media arts, as well as $307,101 to 140 multidisciplinary artists who included film as one of their art forms, according to data provided by GCAC.

In addition, Daughtery said he organized a half-dozen educational workshops in 2023 and continued ongoing efforts aimed at constructing a soundstage in Columbus, which multiple people interviewed cited as a resource currently lacking in the city’s bid to grow its film industry. (Daugherty said a deal for a soundstage to be built near John Glenn Columbus International Airport recently fell through and potential new sites were now being assessed.)

Daugherty said in the last year his attention was also focused on lobbying lawmakers to expand the cap on the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit (OMPTC), which was established in 2009 and provides a 30 percent tax credit on production cast and crew wages, plus other eligible in-state spending. Beginning July 1, 2024, the cap on the OMPTC is set to rise to $75 million for the fiscal year, up from $50 million this year, which Daugherty said could be a boon to the Columbus film scene.

“At the moment, we see smaller $2 million and under, sometimes $3 million and under type projects, which I’m fine with, and which can be useful in growing the local crew base,” Daugherty said. “But once that tax incentive is increased, I can really reach into my Rolodex and say, ‘We’ve got more money, please apply,’ and I think then we’ll see some of that growth. And then we’re working on local incentives, too, which I think is going to make a huge difference.”

And yet a number of people interviewed expressed belief that a divide continues to exist between Film Columbus and the independent filmmakers living and working in the city. “It seems like perhaps the Columbus film commission and the grassroots filmmakers aren’t on the same page,” said Angela Meleca, former executive director of CreativeOhio, who played a role in getting the Ohio film commissions in Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland to work together to lobby the state government to increase the cap on OMPTC, and who continues to seek out new ways to increase legislative investment in independent film. “The sooner we get people working in tandem, the better we will all be.”

“A lot of us understand the [commissioner] role and the need to cultivate and boom the economy, [but] when people make suggestions to help, or make suggestions on what could be done, it’s always thwarted, and it’s always a no,” said filmmaker and Columbus Black International Film Festival founder Cristyn Steward. “And that, I think, is where the real frustration lies. … That partnership is never really there, because they’re not trying to build community with us.”

Additionally, six of the people interviewed questioned the format and design of the Film Columbus pitch contest developed by Daugherty as a means of distributing grant money. Kenyon College professor and director Jonathan Sherman (They/Them/Us), who served as part of the Film Columbus advisory board until being dismissed earlier this year, described the contest as deeply flawed, exhibiting a bias toward narrative filmmakers and beset by what he termed a poorly executed application process that left loopholes to be exploited. Sherman pointed to one of the $10,000 winners of this year’s pitch contest, Gay Fairy Tale, which is the work of a New York City-based director whose project qualified for the contest because one of the film’s listed producers is an undergrad at Ohio State University and the application was filed under their name.

“With GCAC, if you’re a visual artist, they’re really consistent with the granting process, where [the artist] would get the grant and GCAC would send out a press release,” said filmmaker Mike Olenick (Beautiful Things, The Cure), who lamented that the full list of winners for the 2023 pitch contest isn’t available on the Film Columbus website. (A press release issued after the contest named $15,000 grand prize recipient sydnee crews but not the nine other winners, who received amounts ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.) “So, in terms of grants, GCAC has this model that works. But with film, they’ve been really inconsistent.”

Sherman also questioned the controls put in place for the distribution of funds via the pitch competition, which he viewed as existing outside of the more controlled, established GCAC grant process. “To be clear, John did hire independent judges to actually decide who won the pitch contest and got the money,” Sherman wrote in a follow-up email after our mid-November interview. “But I can promise you, if I were a filmmaker who wanted access to this grant money, it would behoove you to stay on his good side, and most filmmakers in this town understand that implicitly.” (“No staff person here controls funding,” Goldstein said of all GCAC grants, including those distributed by Film Columbus. “We have checks and balances in place to make sure that doesn’t happen.”)

Sherman was not the only one to raise concerns. Multiple people with ties to the Columbus film industry expressed misgivings about saying anything regarding Film Columbus or GCAC that could be construed as remotely negative – even anonymously – citing access to grant money and fears of professional repercussions. 

Several people also directed me to an essay by Daugherty in which he lauded “the power of gratitude” to open doors while simultaneously tsk-tsking the lack of appreciation he said he viewed at times within all levels of the industry, including among those living and working in Columbus. The essay was published at Rolling Stone via the magazine’s Culture Council – an invitation-only network of industry professionals that Daugherty said he joined at a cost of $1,600 to GCAC for the year. (Daugherty said he opted not to renew the membership because it didn’t generate the expected impact.)

When Sherman and others eventually brought concerns about the pitch contest to Daugherty, Sherman said he was subsequently removed from the advisory board, with Daughterty citing board term limits to him as the reason for the personnel shuffle. “Board term limits are just good governance,” Katzenmeyer said. 

Asked in December if these board members had been dismissed due to complaints related to the pitch contest, Daugherty allowed that “the timing was a little odd,” but the changes were made because “those board members were on five, six, seven years and we needed more diversity.” (In a follow-up email, Daugherty wrote that terms on the advisory board are meant to extend for three years, according to Film Columbus bylaws – terms multiple people interviewed said had been historically ignored and a duration exceeded by at least one current board member.)

Goldstein said there are no plans to discontinue the pitch contest, noting that the event just completed its second year and should be given time and space to develop. “We believe in sustained effort,” she said, allowing that tweaks could be made to future editions, particularly related to grant money being awarded to filmmakers who reside out of state. “Maybe we need to tighten stuff up. I certainly agree that a contest that is meant to support local film and Columbus-based filmmakers should keep the money here in Central Ohio.”

Prior to winning the Film Columbus pitch contest, Gay Fairy Tale director Rachel Billings wasn’t sure if she was going to film in New York, Los Angeles or Ohio, but after receiving the nod, Billings said it felt natural to shoot in Columbus. “I was warming up to the idea of filming in Ohio, and then Pitch Columbus came along, and it was kind of the sign I was waiting for,” said Billings, who said she was struck by the diversity of voices and concepts on display in the pitch competition. “So much of the story [in the film] is looking at those corners, those places that people might not think of otherwise.”

Billings could have been describing the film scene in Columbus, which has long trailed behind those developed in fellow Ohio cities such as Cleveland and Cincinnati, both of which Molly Kreuzman said are “light years ahead of us.” 

Those interviewed attributed this gap to everything from the city’s lack of a soundstage and its dearth of union crews to its indistinct architecture. 

“Columbus is a hard sell,” said producer Gail Mezey, who helped establish the first film commission in Columbus under former Mayor Michael Coleman. “If you look at Cleveland and you look at Cincinnati, and even if you look at Toledo, you look at the locations and you see this architecture. Here, we tear everything down and build blank boxes.”

So, while the occasional Hollywood film has set up camp in Columbus, including the 2016 John Travolta film I Am Wrath, the frequency has paled in comparison to the rate at which productions have filmed in Cincinnati, which stood in for 1950s New York City in director Todd Haynes’ romantic period drama Carol, and Cleveland, which emerged as a Marvel Studios hub after director Joss Whedon chose to film The Avengers there in 2011. And the trend is set to continue in 2024. Of the 19 or 20 films that applied by the December deadline for the OMPTC, Daugherty said “four or five” proposed filming in Central Ohio, with the rest destined for either Cleveland or Cincinnati.

“[Daugherty] has always portrayed it as very competitive, and it’s us against them. And maybe it is,” said Jennifer Lange, director of the Film/Video Studio program at the Wexner Center for the Arts and a former member of the Film Columbus board. “But that’s where I see a really creative, thoughtful, responsive film commission here in Columbus would find the gaps that exist between the strengths of those two cities (Cleveland and Cincinnati), because I feel there are those gaps. Whether it’s focusing on innovation, or post-production, I think there’s an industry here that can be grown and lively.”

Multiple people interviewed said the city could benefit by leaning into its identity as an indie film hub, several citing the success of Poser, from Columbus-based Loose Films, which earned strong reviews at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival and helped to propel star (and Damn the Witch Siren singer) Bobbi Kitten into a role in the John Slattery-directed Maggie Moore(s). “I think that people like Loose Films … can thrive here for sure, because they're creating things from the ground up, using the resources that are here,” Sydney Lawson said.

“I think Columbus is really trying to carve its own niche and being the hub for independent film, which is exciting,” Angela Meleca said. “And I think that that's kind of the right way to go, to identify what's unique about your region and what you can offer to the overall ecosystem.”

Karmen Dann, founder and executive producer of Green Blanket Production, believes the city could also benefit by fostering better ties between the film and commercial worlds. “You’ll see in the landscape in Cincinnati or Cleveland where a lot of the crews will subsidize from either space, either for their creative engine or their financial needs,” Dann said. “But there’s not much of a film scene here that anybody could survive on if that’s all they did, so a lot of people just end up going to the commercial world.”

At the same time, Dann said Columbus could be doing more to incentivize the corporations based here, including White Castle, Wendy’s and Nationwide Insurance, to shoot ad campaigns in the city rather than outsourcing work to Los Angeles and New York. “Yeah, they should be keeping some of their work here,” Daugherty said. “I’ve talked about this idea of going to the Columbus Partnership and saying, ‘Hey, let’s get a commitment from these larger companies to keep 1 or 2 percent of their marketing budget in the city,’ and that would be a lot of work, and keep a lot of jobs flowing.”

The ability to more consistently attract productions has allowed both Cleveland and Cincinnati to build up enviable union crew bases, with Cleveland boasting eight to 10 union crews and Cincinnati having four to six. Columbus, according to multiple people interviewed, lacks even a single complete union crew. “Anytime we shoot a commercial in Columbus, we end up subsidizing 50 percent of the jobs with crew from Cleveland or Cincinnati,” Dann said. “If there’s more than one thing happening in town, you just can’t get a crew.”

“Cleveland and Cincinnati have that [crew] density that we just don’t,” said filmmaker Joshua Clark, who is currently working with a group that he said plans to build a film vocational school in Franklinton as one means of helping to address this deficiency.

Issues developing a crew base are nothing new in Columbus, with Sydney Lawson describing it as a persistent “chicken or the egg” situation. “There’s no work, and because of that there are no people who are in the union,” said Lawson, who has plans to move to Los Angeles in the near future – part of an ongoing talent drain that has exacerbated these issues. Daugherty addressed these concerns in a 2015 interview with Columbus Monthly, saying “it could take five years or more” to cultivate an experienced pool of professionals from which these productions could draw. Eight years later, it remains an issue.

“One or two movies a year isn’t really enough to keep people working, so we’ve been looking at, you know, how do we keep jobs here? How do we keep people working? How do we keep the union happy and breed union members?” Daugherty said in December. “So, yes, we’ve got quite a few initiatives for 2024 … to find out where the gaps are and grow that crew base.”

Historically, Daughtery said, there has been an element of competition that exists between the three Ohio film commissions, owing in part to the $10 million cap placed on the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit when it debuted in 2009, which left each city scraping and clawing to lock in productions before these funds were exhausted. “It was pretty adversarial back then, and part of the reason is that the previous commissioner up there [in Cleveland], that was kind of his m.o.,” Daugherty said of Ivan Schwarz, the former president of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, who stepped down in 2019 following 13 years in the role, replaced by Bill Garvey, with whom Daughtery said he has a far more amenable relationship.

“I don’t think we necessarily have to compete,” Garvey said in a November Zoom interview. “There’s enough work, fortunately, to go around. And in our efforts to create a tax incentive program that best appeals to business, I think we’re all rowing in the same direction, and we’ve gotten together to advocate on that front.”

Ideally, Garvey and Daugherty said, the state will eventually adopt an uncapped Motion Picture Tax Credit similar to the one in place in Georgia, which has led to a film renaissance not only in Atlanta, Garvey said, but also buoyed cities such as Macon and Savannah, and he could see the legislation having a similar statewide impact in Ohio. At the same time, Daugherty conceded that the current Republican makeup of the Ohio legislature makes it unlikely the state will lift the cap – a point echoed by Sen. Kent Smith, D-Euclid, who earlier this year championed the legislation that lifted the cap to $75 million, even releasing a video in the style of director Wes Anderson to illustrate his point. 

“There are some people [in the Ohio Statehouse] who don’t think we should be incentivizing this type of activity at all, and they saw it as a waste of money,” Smith said by phone in November. “But, again, if you do the economic analysis, you see that for every dollar spent by the state [in the tax credit], four get returned. And I think then the notion that it’s wasted dollars just hopefully kind of goes away.”

Cristyn Steward of Columbus Black International Film Festival said the conversation could also benefit from focusing less on Hollywood dreams and marquee-lit names and more on the realities of the filmmakers and craftspeople already working to build the local film scene from the ground up.

“People don’t understand that film is also a trade, and that the same people painting our houses can make money working on films,” Steward said. “Yes, film is creative, but it’s also a blue-collar profession. … We need people who can paint sets and people who can do ceramics and can make props. We need people who can build sets. With all the development going on in the city, it’s like, how are we missing out on this? How is this not a collaborative effort? Why isn’t [Columbus design firm] Moody Nolan doing film work? Why is that not a thing? … It’s the local community and that collaboration that is missing, and that’s what it’s going to take for us to be successful.”

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