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Eight Great Reasons to Shoot Your Movie in a Small Town

Eight Great Reasons to Shoot Your Movie in a Small Town

It’s only natural: You make a movie, you think New York. Or Los Angeles. No one thinks Biddeford, Maine (Pop.: 21,000).

But we did. We just wrapped production on our third feature, “How to Make Movies at Home.” And I’ve been reminded once more that a small-town movie shoot may lack the sexy grit of, say, the Lower East Side, but those who disdain small-town opportunities look like rubes.

East coast or west coast, they’re on to you. If you’re making a movie, you’re a pain. You get in their way. You want them to be quiet and they want you to get off the sidewalk.

Meanwhile, my Facebook chat window keeps popping up with Biddeford’s city manager and economic development director, telling me how they miss us.

I asked them for specifics (You like us? You really like us?) and got a motherlode.

“It puts smart young people into the streets and creates a scene of thrilling activities for the non-creative folks who are creative consumers,” said city manager John Bubier.  “These things all give Biddeford a new sense of purpose from the inside, and a whole new set of options for those coming in from the outside.”

“The buzz is everywhere, from coffee shop conversations and water cooler gossip  to cast and crew sightings around the community,” said economic development director Daniel Stevenson.

John: “You guys impact other people who are trying to be creative.”

Daniel: “The entire cast and crew were a pleasure to have work and play within our community. …This is the beginning of forging long-term relationships with producers, writers, directors, cast and crew. Understanding filmmaking was an interesting and enjoyable learning process for us from a business model and partnership perspective. It is infectious and places us on the map in a fun way that other economic development initiatives cannot accomplish.”

It’s flattering, but their fondness is practical. The textile industry was once a major employer, but the city’s last mill closed in 2009. However, each of those mills is the size of a soundstage.

Meanwhile, the local government officials are energetic, smart and feisty; they want developers to breathe life back into these great and large spaces. So when I introduced myself and our project to them, they kicked into motion.

They made our shoot easy and fun, hooking us up to locations with often less than 12 hours’ turnaround. At the end, we threw them a thank-you concert – and they offered us a sponsorship for the movie.   

What else in it for you? Here’s the promised eight reasons.  

1. They’re flattered. You chose them! They’ll keep asking you why.  Keep this article with you. Blame me, and give them my number: 818.623.8121.
2. They lack bureaucracy.  It takes more time to fill out the application and turn in your money than it does to call the Codes guy, so all that rigamarole disappears. What used to crank on you before becomes an enthusiasm fueled by a city’s potential to make a mark.
3. They need you.  And you need them. Make a meeting happen with city officials, give them a 10-minute presentation. They’re used to managing sewage and sanitation and building complaints. Your film’s going to be a cakewalk.
4. They have hope. Quiet, small-town hope that you’ll do them proud. Or at least give them a cult classic that will allow someone to turn a buck selling T-shirts with your movie’s pithy lines on them. 
5. The media loves you. The local newspaper will be delighted to not cover another car wreck, domestic abuse case, local Guys & Dolls or Walmart developer standoff. 
6. There’s local money.  If you have the capacity to stimulate more money, they’re happy to talk. By the time we landed in Biddeford, we’d missed our opportunity to pitch sponsorships for area banks that must reinvest a certain portion of their profits back into the community. So I laid seeds to revisit the conversation after Thanksgiving, when they’re setting budgets for 2012. We offer community banks and credit unions a real alternative to the ad agencies that will lay some graphics over b-roll of sailboats and nonunion actors and call it tourism. 
7. There’s more money. The city you’re shooting in could be interested in working with you to find local financing for reasons beyond what they’re telling you. They’re usually working a number of development deals and trying to get the big city folk to sign on the dotted line. So maybe they’ll brag that they’ve got a film in town and drop your name. You scratch their back, they’ll scratch yours.
8. There’s more money in your pocket. Gas is close to the same price everywhere, but rental cars will be 50% cheaper.  So will the housing. And the eggs will probably come directly from the chicken to your craft services.

Without our producers’ hometowns, we would not have been able to shoot  a 115-page script with over 20 locations on less than $25,000. Nor would we have had so much fun doing it.

What did it take to acquire all this karmic goodness?

1. One key producer as resident
2. One meeting with city officials
3. One three-minute presentation at a city council meeting 
4. A friendly, flexible film crew.   

One of our producers lives and owns in Biddeford; both of our producers grew up making movies together in high school in nearby Kennebunk. Biddeford’s streets have tattoo parlors and bakeries and Thai restaurants and pizza shops doing their best to eke out a profit. Storefronts rent for $800/month. Maine residents are known as humble, resourceful, eco-conscious and appreciative hard-workers who will shove off to the beach at the drop of a hat. 

Sounds like an indie film set to me.  

If you’re not so lucky as to have a small-town producer, Wikipedia yourself a small town to fall in love with. Keep it under pop. 30K. Think big fish, little pond and pitch your video village in the middle of it all. 

And, in the end, isn’t indie film supposed to give back more than it takes? No matter how much it banks on a distribution deal, the for-profit goal we’re all going for is Everyone Profits. If you run a professional shoot and thank people when you come and go, you might give back more to a community that’s suffered a few too many of the other kind of shootings.

We’ve already gotten so much back, and we haven’t even started post.

Lisa Dowda is a writer/producer based in Brooklyn. She’s produced indie TV, theatre, new media and print in LA and NY, and hails from the storefront theatre scene in Chicago. She consults routinely for nonprofit theatre and for start-up projects. Her MFA is in writing for TV and theatre at California Institute for the Arts. Awards: Dramatists Guild Fund and New York Foundation of the Arts Fiscal Sponsorship. Current projects include: ChasingSanitation.com and HowToMakeMoviesAtHome.com. Her media production company is ScreamersLake.com, for Those Who Want & Can’t Have. Find her on Facebook and follow H2MM@H on the FB page, “How to Make Movies at Home.”


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