Local film crew vets question their future as House of Cards and Annapolis battle over tax credits

The drama in Annapolis over legislation to add $11 million in tax credits for film and television productions like House of Cards has produced lots of entertainment: the "cough up the dough or your economy gets it" letter from House of Cards' production company; Kevin Spacey morphing into Frank Underwood in front of fawning legislators at a wine bar; and a House amendment to allow seizure of property when companies claiming more than $10 million in tax credits (i.e., only House of Cards) move a production out of state.

But veterans of Baltimore-based film and television crews are not entertained. They expected production on House of Cards to resume in early spring. The show's production company, Media Rights Capital, pushed that back to June . . . if the bill approving the extra tax credits passes. If it doesn't pass, the company threatened to move out of state.

In the meantime, 60-year-old Keith Weaver, who has worked on scene-painting crews since Tom Selleck's mustache graced various Maryland locations for the late-80s comedy Her Alibi, is fixing up his century-old home in Baltimore's Lauraville neighborhood.

"This is where I want to live," Weaver said, standing on a ladder and applying freshly mixed plaster to a crack in an upstairs wall. His wife, Lucy Pealer, works on film crews, too, making the looming vote in Annapolis even more consequential. "I want to retire. Working in that industry has allowed me to have this house."

The film and television production industry has enabled many of Weaver's colleagues to put down roots in Maryland. Even as Canada used incentives to lure productions in the 1990s and states like Georgia and Louisiana followed suit, Maryland declined to join the game. But the state's diverse locations and the crew base's reputation attracted production companies-and kept them coming back, says David O'Ferrall, business agent for I.A.T.S.E. Local 487, which represents some local crew workers.

Now, O'Ferrall says, "The first question a production asks is, 'What are the incentives?' Then they worry about the crew base and locations."

Maryland began offering incentives in 2005, devoting nearly $11 million by mid-2007. The state cut back when the recession hit, and as film and TV work dried up, local crew members chased work elsewhere.

"We were at a point once when you could do three major shoots," said David Simon, who employed local crews on The Wire. "But a year after [Maryland Gov. Martin] O'Malley stopped the program, you could do maybe one and a half, and the crew base was cut in half."

When Simon started filming HBO's Treme in New Orleans, he started seeing familiar faces. "You couldn't throw a beignet without hitting a crew guy I'd worked with in Baltimore," Simon said.

"We made money for other states," said Keith Weaver, who worked in Ohio and Michigan during the slump. "We're renting their hotels, buying their food, their supplies."

In 2010, Fran Gerlach, another Lauraville resident with three decades of scene-painting experience, spent six months in Michigan working on Scream 4. Back home, her mother was suffering from Alzheimer's in an assisted living facility. It was a hardship that many traveling crew members face: "That constant dread," Gerlach said, "of having to get home on a moment's notice."

Maryland's legislature has since boosted incentives, committing $55 million in tax credits from mid-2011 through mid-2016-over $30 million for House of Cards alone.

On Wednesday, April 2, the House will hold a hearing on the "House of Cards bill," passed by the Senate last week, that would add even more to the pot.

Lawmakers have five days to make a decision; the legislative session ends April 7.

Hollywood will be watching this week's maneuvering in Annapolis. And when it comes to money, Hollywood doesn't like drama. "Back in L.A., studios take note of this shit," said David Simon, who believes the antics in Annapolis make the state look unpredictable and therefore, unattractive for future productions, even if the bill passes and House of Cards stays.

Gerlach is watching Annapolis too. "It feels like, if this doesn't get resolved," she said, "it's like the nail in the coffin."

Meantime, she is ruefully considering moving to a state with steadier work.

"I might have to," Gerlach said. "I'm looking at the age of 60. I'm too young to retire, but too old to be easily trainable in another career."

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