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Films catching county's good side

July 10, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

When you hear that a movie costs millions of dollars to make, do you every wonder what those dollars pay for?

The stars get a lot of it, of course, but for almost every movie, there are locations that must be rented, food that caterers must buy to feed everyone on the set, fuel to be purchased for vehicles and generators, if necessary, and finally, hotel rooms to house everybody but the local extras.

The impact of a movie being shot in Washington County is as great as having a large convention in town, according to Tom Riford, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Riford knows because shooting recently wrapped up here on "Fields of Freedom," a 25-minute film on the Battle of Gettysburg that will be shown at Gateway Gettsyburg, an Adams County, Pa., facility that will have an eight-screen movie theater, among other things.

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Getting the film was a lucky break of sorts because it was originally scheduled to be shot in Adams County. Instead, it was done instead on a 500-acre farm in Washington County after problems developed in Pennsylvania, the nature of which everyone involved has declined to discuss.

Asked how movie companies decide on sites, Riford said that much of it is done through state film commissions, adding that he became well-acquainted with Jack Gerbes, head of the Maryland Film Office, during the filming of the Civil War movie, "Gods and Generals."

Since then, Gerbes has called with requests to look at different local sites movie companies might want to use. In some cases, it's a 500-acre farm, in others, it's an old warehouse or an historic home.

Interiors and exteriors of the Miller House and the nearby Alsatia Club on Hagerstown's West Washington Street were used for the History Channel's "Secret Missions of the Civil War," while a windowless board room in a downtown bank was offered for a film that actor George Clooney was interested in, Riford said.

In another case, the overlook from Pen Mar County Park was scrutinized, but not used, by a director who wanted a mostly empty valley that wouldn't require too much computer wizardry to make it look deserted.

"You try to find whatever is the best fit," Riford said.

In the case of "Fields of Freedom," it was shot on the farm of Austin Flook, whose property was also the backdrop for "Gods and Generals."

Asked how Flook was persuaded to disrupt his farming operations for the movie, Riford said it wasn't difficult.

"Flook is a very nice man with a true understanding of how to be a businessman and how to attract business to Washington County," he said.

"For less than 30 days' filming, a price was agreed to, and for a farmer to get some added value to his farm is a good thing," Riford said.

It added value to Washington County as well, Riford said, beyond the obvious increase in hotel business. Caterers bought food locally, Thompson Gas supplied gas to the site and the Sharpsburg Ambulance squad got paid $4,000 for keeping an emergency vehicle on the site during filming.

Because major media have written stories on productions done here, Riford said that movie-making generates name recognition and image enhancement for the area that it otherwise would cost the county millions of dollars.

Since 2004, Riford said there have been half-a-dozen History Channel productions here and three movies.

The impact of doing just one movie a year here is just as great an economic impact as all the visitors to Antietam National Battlefield, he said.

Asked what can be done to promote the county as a move-making location, Riford said that the county is fortunate in that this area is the headquarters of Historical Entertainment, headed by Russ Richards.

"A film company will put the word out that 'We need 300 re-enactors as extras for a Civil War piece.' Russ will coordinate all of that," Riford said.

"In the case of 'Fields of Freedom,' I heard about it from Russ Richards, then I contacted Jack Gerbes" of the state film office, he said, adding that "Pennsylvania's loss was Maryland's gain."

Riford said he couldn't attract the business he has without the cooperation of a lot of local businesspeople such as Randy Thompson of Thompson Gas, Don Bowman of Bowman Development and John Barr of Ellsworth Electric.

Riford said that the "Fields of Freedom" people decided they needed a power line removed so it wouldn't intrude into the shot, Allegheny Power agreed to take it down and Barr quickly installed a generator to power the house the line served.

"Every film company I've worked with all say that people in Washington County are great to work with," he said.

Did you notice anything different in your life during the filming of "Fields of Freedom" or any other movies?

Unless you lived next door to one of the locations, probably not. But if you worked in a restaurant, a hotel or one of the firms that did business with movie-makers, you might have gotten bigger tips or more hours of work.

Tourists, as Riford is fond of saying, come here, leave their dollars and don't ask the Washington County residents build them schools or sewer plants. Movie companies do all that, too, with an added bonus: They provide the possibility of extra income for local farmers, whether or not it's a good year for growing corn.

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