Big-budget movies enjoy tax relief, local charm in Cincy's growing film economy

Kristen Schlotman is a busy woman. As executive director of the nonprofit Film Cincinnati, she helped bring 10 major motion pictures to the city in 2016, and she’s on track to do it again this year. According to Schlotman, if Cincinnati keeps it up, “we’ll be a world-class destination for all things production.”

Thanks to a robust statewide tax incentive program, the stars seem to be aligning to make that dream a reality. Film Cincinnati has been around since 1987, but the recent uptick in major films produced locally has been a direct result of the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit, which was passed in 2009. Film Cincinnati played an integral role in advocating for the tax credit, and it has proven a powerful tool amid growing international competition. 

Kristen Schlotman (Photo: Film Cincinnati)“When I started working at the film office, the loudest voice was always the director,” Schlotman recalls. Back then, the selection of locations to make a film “came down to the creative component.” 

The film industry began to change, though, and production companies started choosing locations like New Zealand that began offering more favorable tax conditions. 

Hoping to get a handle on this “runaway production,” Film Cincinnati worked with industry experts to study what other states and countries had done to make their regions attractive to the motion picture industry.

Through research, advocates demonstrated the potential economic benefits to the state economy, and an initial $10 million tax credit was approved as part of the annual state budget in 2009. To be considered, eligible productions must spend a minimum of $300,000 per project in the state of Ohio. The credit can cover up to 30 percent of eligible expenses, such as cast and crew wages, accommodations, set construction and location fees. 

The first film to take advantage of the tax credit program in Cincinnati was The Ides of March, directed by and starring native Cincinnatian George Clooney. The critically acclaimed political thriller was shot at local landmarks like Fountain Square, Memorial Hall and the Roebling Suspension Bridge. 

“People thought we got Clooney here because he’s from here, but it was actually the tax program,” Schlotman explains. The success of that movie propelled Cincinnati onto the national stage and laid the groundwork for more industry interest in the Queen City.

Because of the increased interest, organizers were able to double the budgetary incentive cap to $20 million annually. 

“We were able to show the state that for every dollar spent, they were getting $1.20 back,” Schlotman says. 

From 2013-2015, Cincinnati-based filming continued to grow, and 10 more big-budget films were shot locally, including the romantic drama Carol (featuring Cate Blanchett), the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead with Don Cheadle and the action flick Marauders, starring Bruce Willis. 

In 2016, the program doubled yet again, raising the incentive cap to $40 million. 

“We were able to double the program again because now the state was seeing $2.01 in returns for every $1 spent,” Schlotman says. 

Subsequently, Cincinnati has undergone a film renaissance over the past two years. According to a study from The Economics Center, the motion picture industry contributed $38.3 million to the local economy in 2016, effectively doubling the economic impact it had the previous year. The 10 productions filmed in Cincinnati in 2016 added the equivalent of 409 jobs to the local economy and increased earnings by $13.6 million.

“(The program) is a very good incentive, in that it encourages films to hire as many locals as possible and build local infrastructure,” says Schlotman, who in recent years has seen other film professionals moving to Cincinnati from around the world to take advantage of our burgeoning local motion-picture economy. 

All this recent activity even prompted the University of Cincinnati to begin offering a four-year Film and Media Studies major, where students are able to gain hands-on experience working with organizations like Film Cincinnati.

This year, Cincinnati has continued to push forward and make its mark as a motion-picture destination. As tax incentives draw interest to the state, Cincinnati is working to promote its unique assets to capture contracts that would otherwise go to other Ohio cities like Columbus and Cleveland. 

One big draw is Cincinnati’s historic charm. Boasting the largest concentration of Italianate architecture in the world, Cincinnati is able to recreate period scenes that resemble Detroit, New York and other places. 

“We’ve got all these great old buildings,” Schlotman says. “We can offer the urban grit in the city, and we can also find rolling hills and horse farms.” These traits make Cincinnati a time-saving option for busy location scouts. 

Schlotman on set with another big Cincinnati film advocate, Emilio Estevez. (Photo: Film Cincinnati)Another aspect that sets Cincinnati apart is being able to work across state lines. Kentucky also has a tax incentive program and unlike Ohio, it doesn’t have an annual cap. 

“We work closely with Kentucky, with municipalities and the film chamber,” says Schlotman. “Those partnerships enhance this film-friendly environment.” 

Film Cincinnati bills itself as a one-stop-shop for the film industry, assisting with everything from acquiring permits to scouting locations and providing local manpower. 

“We see productions from beginning to premiere and support along the way,” Schlotman explains.

This level of concierge service is working, and Schlotman says film and production companies are regularly returning to Cincinnati to shoot more films. Meanwhile, the city has landed a number of recent films, including My Days of Mercy, starring Ellen Page, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which features Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell. 

Schlotman is optimistic about what the future holds for Cincinnati. “I’d like to see a TV series anchored here. I don’t want to see us switch gears; we have many motion pictures slated for next year that we’re excited about. But if we could double it in the next year, we’ll be pivotal and a focal point in the community.” 

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Read more articles by Kamal Kimball.

Kamal Kimball is a freelance writer and co-founder of Ampersand Creative Services.