Does the Quad Cities need a new film office now that Hollywood is paralyzed by striking actors and writers?
Doug Miller, film and media liaison for the planned QC Regional Film Office, of course says yes. He was hired in June 2022 by the city of Rock Island to help establish a new film office to market the area to attract new TV and film projects. There’s been a lot of discussion with industry professionals and a website created for the effort, but not many results yet.
Last year, the City Council approved a one-year contract with Miller and his firm, Two Rivers & Associates, to be funded by a $65,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
The bare-bones website home page (launched early this year) includes a paragraph on “Ideal Locations,” saying the “central, midwestern location of the Quad Cities provides a diverse backdrop for a variety of productions, including unique, open landscapes, the Mississippi River, historic architecture, industrial buildings, downtowns and main streets, farmland, and scenic vistas.”
Miller said he doesn’t anticipate a problem getting the city contract renewed for 2023-24. The original contract was to pay the consultant $1,665 a month through June 2023) and included an option to extend the term by an additional year if the need exists.
“I work, no matter what,” Miller said recently of ongoing strikes by the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild against the major studios. A big concern of actors now is potential for artificial intelligence to take away work, he said.
“It’s going to change everything. I can make a movie with Cary Grant right now and not have him be alive,” he said, noting he hopes there will be progress on the union talks by Labor Day.
“It’s going to affect all the film festivals, all that stuff,” Miller said of strikes (since early May among writers and mid-July from actors).
The SAG-AFTRA strike has taken actors out of promoting new films, like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” including a planned 50th-anniversary screening of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and appearance by star Ted Neeley at St. Ambrose – originally scheduled for July 22 and later canceled.
“The strike has certainly disrupted the flow of projects, but there are still independent producers working on things in the background,” Rock Island economic development manager Tarah Sipes said recently by e-mail. “The need for talented teams of people will not be reduced once the strike is resolved, so the efforts around the workforce pipeline are still relevant despite the strike.”
Miles Brainard, the city’s director of community and economic development, said Monday: “Staff will be meeting later this week to discuss the status of the film office effort, which is still in an early stage of development.”
Mayor Mike Thoms declined to comment on the need for the film office, saying he was not familiar enough with the project.
Progress by new year
Miller expects the city contract to be renewed and make progress on a marketing plan for QC film and television production. That and the website should be filled out by Jan. 1, 2024, he said.
“The strike bought us some time, actually,” he said. “Once they get settled, they’ll start looking at what they start shooting in early spring, start shooting in summer,” Miller said. “That’s what I’m hoping is the game plan of what happens.”
“I have talked to people at the very highest levels, that we are on their radar screen,” he said of the QC.
Since major studios want to cut costs, attracting production to Illinois and the QC region specifically may be easier, since they’re much more affordable than bigger cities, the film office will say.
“These are old friendships,” Miller said of filmmakers that know this area is here. He doesn’t see a need to have a physical office location in Rock Island.
Miller is close with Illinois Film Office director Peter Hawley, noting he hasn’t worked in the state office since before the pandemic.
Hawley helped Augustana College launch its new film major program, which starts this fall, under new program director Stacy Barton. She’s taught in higher education since 2004, having held positions at the University of Colorado Denver, the University of West Georgia and most recently Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Miller said the new film office will do all it can to help Augie’s program and the QC-based Fresh Films, which works with students in TV and film training.
Area professionals in the industry can be connected with these high school and college students, he noted.
QC union member thoughts
“Attracting production to the area. Getting major productions filming in a location is a huge boom to the economy, both during filming and in potential tourism possibilities down the road,” he said recently. “Look at Dyersville and the effect that ‘Field of Dreams’ has had on that location with the MLB ‘Field of Dreams’ games. Hollywood iconography can be a major attraction for years to come.”
“A major production will typically hire background actors from the area, but I’d also like to see the film office be advocates for local casting for other roles as well,” Gougeon said. “While most of the casting would be done out of L.A. for any major production, it would be great for the office to be able to advocate for actors in the area to be more than moving scenery. There are a lot of talented people here, and allowing people to get those opportunities could be really significant.
“The best thing a state can do to attract film production is to provide tax incentives for filming,” he said. “Georgia, New Mexico, and more have all seen booms in production due to tax credits. My home state of Michigan was becoming a real boom town in the late aughts, and then a new administration came in and severely restricted the credits, and the industry dried up. We need to advocate to our state governments, especially Iowa, as Illinois already has some in place due to the Chicago market, the economic impact of film.”
The area SAG members should be resources for filmmakers in the region, Gougeon said.
“Teaching filmmakers the ins and outs of going union v. non-union and the benefits and drawbacks to both,” he said. “Teaching filmmakers about the different types of SAG-AFTRA contracts available that would allow them to hire union actors. Helping filmmakers to learn about funding sources and connecting them with other networks of industry professionals.”
How long will strikes last?
He anticipates the strikes could last well into fall, if not early next year.
“The main issues at hand for SAG-AFTRA are day rates, residuals, mainly in the streaming market, the use of AI, and insurance contributions,” Gougeon (who has appeared on the Emmy-winning “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on Amazon Prime Video) said. “From my experience, the residuals from streaming services, which are now the primary avenue for content, are significantly less than those from network television.
“It’s especially frustrating when you’re involved in a show that’s a streaming hit, like ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,’ and your work isn’t compensated commensurate with the impact of the product,” he said. “And with AI, the studios and producers would like to be able to scan an actor, pay them a low day rate for the scan, and then use their likeness in perpetuity without any additional compensation. Unacceptable.
“And there are studio heads that have been quoted saying they’re willing to wait until writers/actors are losing their apartments and homes before they’ll come back to the bargaining table,” Gougeon said.
“And while everyone sees the stars of Hollywood who make millions of dollars, these strikes are mainly impacting the middle-class actors,” he said. “Those actors who are relying on commercials, day player roles, co-stars, etc. to pay the bills and put food on the table.
“This was the class of the industry I was in during my time in NYC, and while I wasn’t rich, I was able to earn a living through these types of jobs,” Gougeon said. “And while I hadn’t needed a steady day job in several years and was working solely as an actor, I still didn’t bring in enough union work dollars to qualify for union health insurance. Day rates and residuals contribute to those dollars.”
SAG-AFTRA says these are the main sticking points:
- Performers need minimum earnings to simply keep up with inflation, including an 11% general wage increase
- Performers need the protection of our images and performances to prevent replacement of human performances by artificial intelligence technology.
- Performers need qualified hair and makeup professionals as well as equipment to safely and effectively style a variety of hair textures/styles and skin tones.
- Performers need compensation to reflect the value we bring to the streamers who profit from our labor.
- All performers need support from our employers to keep our health and retirement funds sustainable, noting contribution caps haven’t been raised in 40 years.
- Principal performers need to be reimbursed for relocation expenses when they’re employed away from home.