Behind every film scene shot outdoors in Portland, there is likely a permit that allowed it to happen. Sometimes many permits.
Take the final episode of the final season of the hit-show "Portlandia."
The show’s mayor decides to craft a rose-shaped route for the Portland Marathon. After deciding the route should go across the Morrison Bridge, the fictional mayor — joined in a cameo by actual former Mayor Sam Adams — climbs into the bridge’s control tower to strike a deal with the operator inside.
The scene lasts about 30 seconds. To get the shot, the film crew needed the city’s transportation bureau to shut down the streets and sidewalks leading up to the bridge. They needed the Portland parks bureau to give them access to Waterfront Park. And they needed Multnomah County to let them onto the bridge and into its control tower.
To sort through this bureaucratic headache, productions rely on the Portland Film Office, a single staff person tasked with making it easy to film in the city, primarily by helping crews get the permits they need. But these crews may not be able to lean on the office for much longer.
In his recent budget proposal, Ted Wheeler — the real and current mayor of Portland — proposed defunding the office, a choice stakeholders in the film industry warn could prove devastating to the city’s burgeoning film scene.
“It takes a long time to create a reputation as a film-friendly environment. It doesn't take very much time to degrade that reputation,” said film producer David Cress, who has relied on the office for years as a producer for "Portlandia" and the Hulu show "Shrill," also based in Portland. “Word gets out if it's difficult to shoot someplace.”
As Wheeler relayed to his colleagues during a Tuesday budget session, a funding cut for the office wasn't entirely unexpected. Two years ago, the mayor had put a note in his proposed budget, asking stakeholders to figure out a way to fund the office without relying solely on the general fund. Last year, the late Commissioner Nick Fish, who served as the liaison for the office, indicated the office couldn't fund itself yet but was close, leading the mayor to agree to finance it for one more year. Fish died on Jan. 2 of this year.
Prosper Portland, the city’s economic development agency responsible for the office, said a plan had been in the works to find money for the office elsewhere, partially by capturing the revenue from permit fees that ordinarily go to the bureaus. But Troels Adrian, the Business and Industry team manager for Prosper Portland, said that plan met a dead end with COVID-19 when bureaus were no longer in a position to hand over desperately-needed funding to the film office. And, with the coronavirus pandemic causing an estimated $75 million shortfall in the general fund for the next fiscal year, the mayor indicated the city can’t afford to use its precious dollars to prop the office up any longer.
“This year, given the magnitude of the economic crisis that we are facing and the lack of resources that we have, I chose not to include the film office based on the two prior years' discussions,” Wheeler told the City Council Tuesday.
According to Prosper Portland's requested budget, the agency was asking for $142,000 for the film office. Stakeholders in Oregon's film industry said they were prepared to see the budget trimmed — but not wiped out entirely.
“The full cutting of the office was a surprise. We have been in discussions with the city of Portland, the mayor's office, and, most candidly and importantly, we were in discussions very much with Commissioner Nick Fish,” said Tim Williams, the executive director of Oregon Film, the state agency representing Oregon’s production industry. “And when Nick passed away, a lot of that momentum sort of went with him, unfortunately.”
Asked if the risks to filming amid a pandemic would slow productions down over the next year, with or without the office, Williams said he expected the opposite, given the backlog of content waiting to be shot.
But with no office to assist in Portland, Williams warned the return to normalcy may not happen. Many in the film industry paint a straight line between losing the office and losing productions because companies won’t want to deal with a city that lacks a go-to middle man to cut through city bureaucracy.
“Everyone who understands what that office does is concerned the process gets bogged down for productions,” said cdavid cottrill, business agent for IATSE Local 488, a union representing studio mechanics. “The more of a cluster you throw up in front of a production, the less likely they are to come back.”
And, if the production goes, cottrill warned, so would go the many millions of dollars productions spend in the state each year.
In a letter sent to Wheeler protesting the budget decision, Lisa Cicala, executive director for the Oregon Media Production Association, broke down how much the Hulu show "Shrill" had spent filming its second season in Portland. By the association’s calculations, the production spent over $6 million in three months on costs ranging from local payroll to meals and taxis.
In Tuesday’s budget session, the mayor said he understands the importance of the office. He wants to spark the conversation about its future.
“I think we all agree that the film office provides services, but I believed that we should have the conversation instead of it being all in or all out,” said Wheeler. “I believe that we need to have the conversation: If we maintain the film office what realistically is the future of that office and where is it going and how do we wish to fund it?”
There’s one new option potentially on the table. Prosper Portland’s Troels Adrian said the agency is looking at ways to possibly have the arts industry shoulder a portion of the cost of the office by levying “some type of charge” on industry activity. But, he said, it’s not clear what this would look like and talks are ongoing.