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Columbus freelance filmmakers feel squeezed in tight job market, industry poised to grow

 A cameraman films in Central Grip & Lighting's studio at their warehouse on Cleveland Avenue in Columbus.
Central Grip & Lighting
A cameraman films in Central Grip & Lighting's studio at their warehouse on Cleveland Avenue in Columbus.

Film and TV writers put down their pens in the first strike in Hollywood in 15 years. But in central Ohio, a robust community of mostly freelance workers continues to produce commercials and indie film projects.

Some say there’s less work to go around these days, while others see Columbus’ film industry on the verge of entering a new, exciting era.

Jason Thompson works on commercials filmed in Columbus. He’s in the art department – or sometimes is the whole art department – building sets, keeping track of props and making sure it all looks good on screen.

As a freelancer, he works a non-linear schedule. “I sort of have to wait for the phone to ring. So there has to already be a job,” he said.

When a job does come in, it often sounds like this text from a local producer that Thompson read aloud: "I have something that's kind of rocky right now, but possible. Are you available on X date?”

It's not exactly a sure thing. “That's the state of affairs right now,” Thompson said.

While in Hollywood, a union representing 11,500 writers of film and television is striking, Thompson sees the Columbus film community facing a problem of its own: there’s less work to go around.

It’s not because of the writer’s strike, though Thompson says that might be affecting the film communities in Cleveland and Cincinnati – who then turn to Columbus for work, further oversaturating the labor pool.

Rough cuts

Thompson mostly works on commercials, which represent the bulk of the filming that happens in Columbus. He believes the apparent slowdown, at least in his corner of the industry, is the result of a changing attitude.

Clients are accepting lower-quality products or using the same commercials for longer, Thompson said. Plus, social media has changed the way people advertise – influencers don’t need $50,000 commercials.

Another local film freelancer, Steven Vargo, attributes the lessening work to the looming possibility of economic recession.

“Until there's more confidence in the American economy where people are willing to be a little bit looser with their wallets, the arts will continue to suffer, because it is considered a luxury expense,” he said.

Vargo works in lighting and camera support. He lives in Dublin, but takes jobs all over the world, usually working on reality TV shows and feature films.

The slowdown can be felt everywhere – including in narrative filmmaking, where Vargo said there was a hyper acceleration in production after the pandemic. Companies over-hired and over-produced, leaving them with a stockpile of content that they’re in no hurry to distribute.

Then, there’s the writer’s strike. Films set for immediate production are already written and therefore might not be affected, but some producers might be waiting to see if other unions join writers in striking, he said.

Vargo is part of IATSE, or the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The union represents motion picture technicians, as well as others on the production side of the entertainment industry.

“As far my union is going from our national, the last I heard is nobody will be punished for crossing a picket line — but also don't cross the picket line,” Vargo said.

 Two crew members operate a mobile camera rig in a studio.
Central Grip & Lighting
Two crew members operate a mobile camera rig in a studio.

Booming business

Jared Greene, co-owner Central Grip and Lighting, believes the recent ups and downs in business have fallen within the “normal range.”

He said over the past five or so years, his Columbus film equipment rental business has been pretty steady.

For freelancers, however, the local job market has become more competitive than ever before, said Greene, who also works on sets.

Still, he sees a bright future for the Columbus film industry, and more work on the horizon for everyone involved. He believes the city is primed take on more narrative filmmaking.

It’s a trickier beast — movies and TV have no guarantee of financial success.

“What is the value of art? Right? But if you're a painter or songwriter or any other medium of art form, I mean, you still need to eat food and sustain yourself,” Greene said.

The interest is there, though, and it can work. He pointed to Columbus-based Loose Films’ 2021 movie “Poser” as a metric for success.

“I mean, these are guys that went out and – and for their, you know, as a proof of concept showed that they had they checked all the boxes you would need to make a business out of it,” Greene said.

A light on Ohio

Greater Columbus Film Commission Director John Daugherty agrees that Columbus is ready to make the transition to more feature filmmaking.

There is currently legislation in the Ohio Senate to raise the state’s current $40 million film tax credit – which is the main means for attracting production, Daugherty said. The bill would uncap the limit, which could make Ohio competitive with states like Georgia, where an uncapped tax credit spurred a $10 billion industry.

“I think we're going to see a really big change in a positive way for people who are in the industry and want to be involved with films and more films being shot here,” Daugherty said.

Ten smaller budget feature films that wanted to shoot in Columbus this year were approved for a slice of the tax credit, according to Daugherty. All those movies won’t necessarily be made due to the nature of the industry, he said.

Bringing outside productions into the area helps generate jobs and raises the profile of a city, Daugherty said. When successful movies are shot in the city, it can also spur film tourism – like in Mansfield, which has been visited by droves of “The Shawshank Redemption” fans.

As the Columbus film industry gets ready for potential growth, Daugherty also wants to redefine it to include animation and to keep an eye on video games – which recently inspired a few big successes, like Netflix’s “The Last of Us.”

As for commercials, which will likely remain Columbus’ bread and butter, Daugherty said he hopes companies based in the area will commit to keeping their commercials here.

“You know what? You don't need to go to California or Chicago or New York to get the quality of commercial work that they think they can only get there,” Daugherty said. “That quality is here and can be done here."

Copyright 2023 WOSU 89.7 NPR News. To see more, visit WOSU 89.7 NPR News.

Allie Vugrincic