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Iowa ought to be in pictures


During his 18 years as the head of the Iowa Film Office, Wendol Jarvis brought considerable fame to Iowa. He helped build the relationships with Hollywood filmmakers that brought the production crews for movies such as “Field of Dreams,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Twister,” “Michael” and some 50 other feature-length films and box-office hits to the state. His work massaged Iowa’s image and showcased its beauty for movie audiences around the world. He helped build the connections that have made Iowa the set for hundreds of commercial shoots each year, and helped bolster other players in the state’s film and video production industry.

But then the effects of a recession hit the state budget like a car wreck in a “B” movie. A budget cut of nearly 50 percent for fiscal year 2002-2003 left the Iowa Film Office an anemic $124,205 to bring big-name movie studios to Iowa. The office’s staff was cut from three to one, returning it to the days Jarvis flew solo – before “Bridges,” before “Field of Dreams” and before Iowa had any renown among movie studios and filmmakers.

Jarvis now owns a restaurant franchise in Kansas City and will open 10 stores in the next year, but his passion for the film and video industry in Iowa still burns. “I wasn’t going to just stay around and draw a salary,” Jarvis said. “It troubles me to see so many good, skilled people struggling to make a living because the state hadn’t allocated enough dollars to promote that industry.”

Now he’s saying what he says it was inappropriate for him to say when he was still a state employee. “Business across the state has suffered because of some pretty unwise decisions being made on where to spend the state resources,” Jarvis said. “If you look at something that is going to return money to the people of Iowa and give people jobs, to cut that doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”

Jarvis says that under his leadership, the Iowa Film Office returned $71 to Iowa for every $1 invested. Reeling off some examples, he talks about wages paid to skilled crews, an average of $385,000 spent on lumber for sets for major productions, $2,000 a week spent on gasoline by the production crews and $250,000 spent on hotels and accommodations for the cast and crew. “And the list goes on,” Jarvis says. “All the infrastructure to support a feature film amounts to between $75,000 and $125,000 spent a day, and most of it into the local economy.

“And you can’t buy the promotional value of ‘Bridges’ and ‘Field of Dreams.’ That’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”

New movie production spending in Iowa since 1985 has generated $130 million, according to the Iowa Tourism Office, a division of the Iowa Department of Economic Development that is handling Iowa Film Office business since Jarvis’ resignation. In Dubuque County, where “Field of Dreams” was filmed, tourism expenditures have grown from $120 million in 1994 to $167 million in 2001. Madison County, where “Bridges” was shot, has seen tourism dollars increase from $5.3 million in 1994 to $6.4 million in 2001.

“People don’t realize how much money gets spent on productions, from food to lodging to clothing to retail business,” said Phil Dingeldeim, whose Davenport-based company, Dingeldeim Philms, recently shot a music video for “Tears For Fears” lead singer Curt Smith, who liked what he saw in a couple of other music videos Dingeldeim had produced.

“When a crew comes in and they need props, it’s nothing to have people go out in pickup trucks buying furniture, plants and electronics to build sets,” Dingeldeim said. “It’s not just the guys running cameras who benefit from it; it’s local restaurants, hotels, Wal-Marts and K-Marts.”

NO LONGER HOLLYWOOD’S DOMAIN   Estimates vary, but most put employment numbers for the film and video production industry in Iowa at around 500. There were only a couple of film and video production companies in the state 15 years ago; now there are more than half a dozen major companies and a few smaller ones, said Steve Schott, a veteran television producer who is filling in at the Iowa Film Office in a consulting role until Jarvis’ replacement is named. Schott, who lived in Los Angeles for 15 years and produced shows starring Jeff Foxworthy, Carol Burnett and Bonnie Hunt, among others, until he moved to Iowa in 1993, said the industry also includes a handful of talent agencies, makeup artists, prop masters and grip operators.

“We also have some great composers who compose music for commercials, jingles and the growing independent film community,” said Schott, who produces commercials, videos, corporate training films and television shows for his company, Nuearth Productions Inc. “It used to be that once every three or four years, someone would make an independent film; now there are one or two a year.”

Schott said Iowa’s film industry is remarkable for a small state without large urban centers, where the film industry normally is clustered. “It’s a new growing industry, and you no longer have to go to Hollywood to pursue your dreams,” he said. “You can truly make films right here.”

The Iowa Film Office is an important point of contact for both the video production industry, in which companies such as West Des Moines-based Screenscape Studios produce everything from commercials to corporate training films, and for independent producers such as Kimberly Busbee, James Serpento and Max Allen Collins. They see Jarvis’ departure as something of an incongruity. His resignation occurred at a time when the independent film industry is, if not robust in Iowa, at least on the cusp of something big, they say. And it came at a time when video production companies are scurrying to make up for lost business from advertising agencies and other businesses that are scaling back in a sputtering economy.

“We’ve seen some tremendous problems with our client ad agencies,” said Brad Morford, president and co-founder of Screenscape Studios, incorporated 15 years ago as Iowa Teleproduction Center. The company does about 300 multimedia projects a year, most of them in Iowa. Advertising agencies refer about 85 percent of the studio’s business.

“I still see spots on TV that I shot four years ago,” he said.

Morford said the initial growth of the company came as a surprise to him and his partners, Todd Hyde and Tony Dock. “But the leveling off has also surprised me,” Morford said. “We’re dealing with an environment that’s largely billed according to time, and there’s nothing you can do to create more time to make your business grow.”

Continual expansion of services has helped Screenscape ride the rough economic seas. In addition to commercials and corporate training films, the company works on television series for cable networks, events planning and corporate image development. A new sports division was added through a partnership with Mobile Vision Productions Inc., a large-screen video rental company based in Cumming. The company provides video production services, video graphics, audio components and director services to events such as concerts, sporting events, fairs, festivals, motor sports events, corporate events and others.

“We’re more fortunate than a lot of larger and smaller organizations because we have a diversified product line,” said Michelle Morford, Screenscape’s vice president. “There are a lot of different things going on in this building than there were five years ago.”

GOOD ‘MEWS’ FOR ‘INDIES’   If companies like Screenscape are the grown-ups of Iowa’s film and video production industry, independent film production is its adventurous child.

“I’ve had a feeling for the last couple of years that we’re bubbling and it’s going to grow,” said Collins, an independent film producer from Muscatine. The Lifetime cable network picked up his 1995 movie, “Mommy,” and his novel, “The Road to Perdition,” was the basis for a critically acclaimed movie starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. He is currently collaborating with the University of Iowa on a documentary on the life of V.T. Hamlin, the famous Iowa cartoonist who created the “Alley Oop” comic strip, and Collins previously wrote and directed a documentary on mystery writer Mickey Spillane, among other projects.

When he wrote and directed “Mommy,” independent feature films made in Iowa were scarce – except for a few with a Christian theme, Collins said. Now, he said, “it’s a rare year that we don’t have two to three” independent films, called “indies” by folks in the industry. The Iowa Motion Picture Association, which Collins heads, had a plethora of entries in its 2002 version of “Iowa’s Oscars,” which featured competition in more than 40 categories.

Technology has advanced to the point that it’s possible to produce a movie without expensive 16 mm and 35 mm film, a factor in the burgeoning interest in indies. “The technology that used to be the domain only of the major cities – Hollywood, New York, Chicago – is now in my son’s computer in his college dorm room,” Collins said. “The technology is available to all of us, and if we have the training and equipment, we can compete. We are, and we have been.”

AriesWorks Entertainment co-owners Serpento and Busbee said the independent film industry in Iowa and elsewhere in the country also is fueled by the growing acceptance of audiences of alternative media.

“There’s a range of possible venues,” Busbee said. “There are more cable networks completely designated for independent films, and the Internet.”

That helps dilute one of the big challenges independent filmmakers have faced in the past: Most movie theaters show only 35 mm prints, and that’s an expensive proposition for small filmmakers, Busbee said.

To bolster independent film production, Busbee and Serpento are opening the Vaudeville Mews on Dec. 5 at 212 Fourth St. in the heart of the Court Avenue entertainment district in downtown Des Moines. The Mews will not only be a venue for the screening of independent films, video and DVD, but also for cabaret and improvisational theater, and will have gallery wall space to display art by Iowans.

Busbee and Serpento plan to show not only their productions – “A Quiet Evening Home,” “The Yoofo Club,” and a pair of yet-to-be released films, “The Next Table” and “Haunting Villisca” – as well as indies from around the country.

IOWA ‘SMARTER’ THAN L.A.   Iowa’s image as a parochial state that isn’t on the cutting edge of anything is an obstacle, independent filmmakers say.

“Iowa has a reputation as a ‘heartland’ state with wonderful people with family values, which is most positive, but on the other side is [the perception] we’re a bunch of hicks,” Collins said. “I always have a sales job to let them know we’re in the 21st century, just like they are.”

Dingeldeim says he gets questions about his decision to work from the Midwest.

“We’ve found our niche and are actually pursuing high-end projects, from music videos to features,” Dingeldeim said. “People ask, ‘Why are you sitting in Davenport, Iowa?’ Well, why not? I can be anywhere I need to be in three or four hours. Travel is fairly inexpensive and we can compete with other crews. Talk to an L.A. crew – talk to anybody in L.A. – and they’re from Monmouth, Ill. or someplace, and moved out to L.A. Nobody’s an L.A. native.

“I decided to stay in Iowa. Does that make me less capable than someone who lives in L.A.? No, it makes me smarter because I don’t have the expenses of somebody living in L.A.”

The Iowa Department of Economic Development has scheduled focus groups across the state to gauge both the strengths of the Iowa Film Office and opportunities for the future before naming a replacement for Jarvis. The IDED hopes to have a new director in place by Jan. 1.

“There’s an awful lot of potential,” said Nancy Landess, manager of the Iowa Tourism Office, which currently is overseeing the Iowa Film Office. “There are a lot of people in Iowa working in the industry, and we’re communicating with them.”

Schott said Jarvis made inroads in establishing Iowa as state where high-quality film and video production can occur – and at competitive prices – but it’s a long and arduous process. “Out-of-state companies don’t expect that Iowa has any kind of industry and always go away appreciating how hard the crews work and how knowledgeable they are,” Schott said. “When we’ve laid out the video and actually showed it to them, they’d go, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know they did that.’

“Major Iowa companies don’t even know we have this capability, and they tend to go out of state. There’s a lot we could shoot here – everything from 35 mm to HDTV to 16 mm. The world is actually pretty small when it comes to the film industry.”

Jarvis is unequivocal about the steps he thinks need to be taken to put the film and video production industry back on sure footing in Iowa. “The budget needs to be back and the staff needs to be back to what it was,” he said. “Part of the job of the Film office is to recruit commercial businesses – that’s a critical part of the industry in Iowa. When you lose two-thirds of the staff and one-half of the resources, you can’t spend the time necessary to recruit.

“The Film Office’s recruiting efforts have suffered because of the cuts, and it seems likely that the whole industry across the state would suffer because of that. It’s been a big hurt – it’s hurt Iowa’s youth and people wanting to come into the industry have not had a place to grow into.”  

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