Movie-making risky business

August 31, 1997


Staff Writer

Since the announcement last week that a major motion picture is to be filmed in Washington County next year, many area officials have been beaming with optimism about Hollywood coming to Hagerstown.

But one movie industry analyst warned that films produced independently have great risks, and a local official said he is concerned that taxpayer dollars are being gambled on something that is not a sure thing.

Antietam Film Works, the company created to film the Civil War epic "Gods and Generals," received a $500,000 line of credit from Farmers & Merchants Bank and Trust to pay for preproduction costs for the movie. The line of credit is expected to be guaranteed for up to $250,000 by the county government and $50,000 by the city of Hagerstown.


"The only thing I see the county doing here is taking a risk," said County Commissioner James R. Wade.

Independently made films - those, like "Gods and Generals," that are not produced by a major motion picture studio - often do fail to make a profit, said Dave Davis, a Los Angeles entertainment industry analyst.

He called them "vanity investments" that routinely leave investors with little more than the thrill of having been in the movie business.

Davis said he is not familiar with the "Gods and Generals" project, but given the expenses such a large-scale movie would likely face, he doesn't give much hope to those backing the line of credit.

"It's unlikely they are going to get their money back," he said.

In some cases, the movies aren't even made, Davis said.

Filmmakers and local officials who worked for a year to lure the motion picture to the county said last week they are certain the movie will be made and will be successful. They were less clear about when filming will start, citing a target of spring of next year to start, but adding that filming is contingent on raising the overall $30 million to $40 million production costs.

Wade, who despite his opposition said he also believes the movie will happen, expressed concern that the county made a commitment without benefit of a business plan or financial statements from the filmmakers.

"We're taking the role of Ted Turner here," Wade said, referring to the entertainment industry mogul.

But County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said the county was simply taking a leadership role.

"Somewhere along the line someone had to step up to the plate and say, `We're going to help,' " he said.

Details of the county offer still have to be worked out, but Snook said it is his understanding that the bank would be repaid the $500,000 once the film's entire budget is raised by the filmmakers. That would take the county and others guaranteeing the line of credit off the hook, he said.

Dennis Frye, who as president of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites participated in the effort to get the movie deal, agreed that the line of credit will be the first thing repaid.

Neither an F&M Bank official nor "Gods and Generals" director Ronald F. Maxwell could be reached for comment about the structure of the line of credit.

Snook acknowledged there is a risk, but one worth taking. He cited the economic impact associated with the filming - estimated by state officials to be $600,000 to $1 million for each week of a scheduled 20-week shoot.

"I think the whole community is going to be a winner in this," he said.

He and other local officials who support the movie effort says the film project brings with it much-coveted tourism dollars, which provide an economic boost without putting a strain on schools, sewer and other services.

"We're going to actually utilize what we already have," Snook said.

But Wade said even if the county doesn't have to shell out the $250,000 and sees an economic benefit, he is still concerned that guaranteeing a loan sets an uncomfortable precedent that could lead to other private businesses coming to the commissioners in search of financial backing.

As a comparison to the movie deal, he pointed to the effort of Hagerstown Suns owner Winston Blenckstone to get government funding for a new minor league baseball stadium in the area.

"There is absolutely no difference between this and that," he said.

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