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Cleveland Takes Initiative in Film Production for Students

Picture of people setting up boom mics.
On stage setting up boom mics.

Film production tax breaks were once available in nearly every state, but a recent survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures found 13 states have scrapped their subsidies in recent years. In Ohio though, it's different story: There's talk of increasing film incentives, and Cleveland-area schools are even taking steps to build the region's production workforce. 

Thyra Chaney loves movies, really loves them.

“I love the dialogue. I love the production. I love every single thing about it,” Chaney says.

Ask the 19-year-old about her favorite films, and she’ll offer an appreciation of everything from “Animal House” to obscure German drama.

Photo of Chaney Hall
Chaney Hall

“It’s really disgusting, but it’s very beautiful and clean,” Chaney says.

She says she’s read more than a dozen books about movie making, and hopes to work in the industry someday, but  she’s never actually worked on a movie set until now.

Chaney is running down the halls of Cuyahoga Community College in Parma where a short film is being shot. It’s part of a class called the “5-Week Motion Picture Intensive.” The goal is to expose students to the essential, if less glamorous, aspects of filmmaking, like lighting and sound recording. Today, she’s in charge of managing props, and she’s just realized that one key item for the next scene is missing from set.

“OK, I’ve made a slight faux paux, but it’s OK, I just have to keep running,” Chaney says.

The class isn’t just about helping students get a foot on the showbiz ladder though. It’s also aimed at addressing a weak spot in the city’s production economy. David Wain is a writer/director based in L.A., but he’s originally from Shaker Heights.

“There’s a minimum standard of training and skill level that these crew people need to have in order to do their job and most of those people don’t live in Cleveland,” Wain says.

He says, producers often prefer to hire locals, because it’s cheaper than flying a crew out. So if Cleveland is going to grow as a production destination, the crew base needs to grow as well.

“This is the main entrance her,” Lahey says.

One person looking to help fill that talent pool is Frederic Lahey. He heads up Cleveland State University's brand new School of Film and Media Arts, which recently started construction on what will be a 36,000 square-foot campus downtown.

Photo of people setting up cameras.
People setting up the cameras for film production.

"Right over here is Studio B which will be a broadcast studio,” Lahey continues.  

When it’s done, he says the space will be tricked out with high-end production facilities.

The state is kicking in about $7.5 million to help launch the school, and Lahey says it’s worthy investment. With studios and streaming services investing billions in new content, he says it’s a chance for the region to diversify its economy.

“Creative content is what there is a market for; it’s not making cars. You don’t need smelters for creative content,” Lahey says.

But it’s not clear how much of that content will come here. According to the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, only eight productions shot in Cleveland last year. Two of those were commercials, and another was an episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

So, what gives?

“We’re held hostage by the low incentive,” the Film Commission's Ivan Schwarz says.

He’s been lobbying lawmakers to raise the annual cap for film incentives from the current 40-million dollars per year to $100 million. He’s also been in talks with private developers about building a studio complex near downtown where big projects can shoot year-round. Filmmaker and Cleveland-native Anthony Russo says he likes the idea.

“There’s a lot of strong regional film production centers, and there’s no reason Cleveland can’t be one of them,” Russo says.

Although he shot his last three movies in Atlanta, he says he’d gladly move production up north if the infrastructure is here. Back at Tri-C, Chaney is half way through a 12-hour day. She says working on a film set for the first time has been exhausting and exhilarating.

“Like running a marathon. And then imagine winning an Oscar,” Chaney says.

When I ask what’s next for her, she says she heard about a production assistant gig in New York. So if she can’t find work around here, she may pick up and follow the work else.