After 'Rain Man,' Hollywood flooded Cincinnati. A quarter-century later, the current has shifted

Filmmakers eyeing budgets along with aesthetics

CINCINNATI—It’s a good thing “The Sound of Music” wasn’t filmed in Cincinnati. Otherwise, we might be singing “the hills are alive with the sound of the director’s clapboard.”

While it’s a stretch to refer to Cincinnati as Little Hollywood, you’d be hard-pressed to find another Middle American minitropolis with the film credits to match those of the Tri-State area.

There are “The Ides of March,” “Traffic” and “City of Hope.” Who can forget the Stallonian detective delight “Tango & Cash?” More than 30 other big-budget films have been made in Cincinnati over the past quarter-century. It’s an open question whether that cinematic splendor would have rained upon the city if not for the film many associate with Cincinnati.

It was 25 Academy Awards ceremonies ago when “Rain Man” won Oscars for best picture, actor (Dustin Hoffman), director (Barry Levinson) and original screenplay (Ronald Bass/Barry Morrow). The previous year, when “Rain Man” filmed in several locations in the region, Cincinnati also gave birth to the memorable films “Fresh Horses” and “Eight Men Out.”

The Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Film Commission has focused its recent lobbying to make the area more appealing to the bottom line of visiting filmmakers. Local and state legislators reduce or refund hotel and sales taxes, rebate part of the cost for hiring local labor and the fees for various permits that accompany location shooting.

Those incentives as much as downtown Cincinnati’s preserved architecture helped land the city’s latest production. “Carol,” a Todd Haynes film starring Cate Blanchett and Mara Rooney, begins filming in mid-March downtown and Over-the-Rhine, with both locales serving as surrogates for 1950s New York City.

“Twenty-five years ago, at the time ‘Rain Man’ was shooting, films were ostensibly chasing location. The producers of ‘Rain Man’ were looking for how many different locations filled their needs in a geographically centered area,” said Kristen Erwin, the film commission’s executive director. “Now, more than anything, movies are chasing money and looking for states with incentive programs.”

Erwin and others working behind the scenes in local film production spent much of the final week this February touring Cincinnati by bus with members of the advance team for “Carol.” They scouted varied locales for technical needs with the details informing how they will prepare each setting before film crews arrive.

Erwin and other insiders poured the foundation for films such as “Carol” over the past three years. They lobbied lawmakers in Ohio and Kentucky to introduce sales and payroll tax credits and rebates for big-budget productions. Kentucky was the 42nd state in the nation and Ohio 43rd to enact such incentives, which differ from state to state. In Ohio, producers earn back 35 percent of their costs in local labor and up to $5 million in overall rebates and tax credits for each project.

For states, the rationale for the giveaways is return on investment. Filmmakers are spending $1.20 in Ohio for every dollar returned to them by the state, Erwin said.

“In the ‘90s, we did a lot of movies because we looked like New York and it was cheaper to make movies here than in New York,” she said. “You saw all that going away when movies started chasing the money. When movies were leaving L.A., they were leaving the country altogether. Canada was incentivising.”

Though late to the trend, Kentucky and Ohio studied other states’ programs for strengths and weaknesses while building a local infrastructure for the administrative, technical and creative talent visiting filmmakers need.

“We don’t want to just be throwing money at movies,” Erwin said. “We want (filmmakers) to know we’re one-stop shopping for everything they need with their productions.”

No incentives or local infrastructure existed for visiting filmmakers 25 years ago, when Levinson, Hoffman and Tom Cruise came to Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky to make “Rain Man.” At the time, Cincinnati and the surrounding landscapes were enough of a lure. The year before it rained Oscars on “Rain Man,” Cincinnati was the scenic and narrative backdrop for the films “Eight Men Out” and “Fresh Horses.”

“Rain Man” launched a sideline career for Billy Baxter Jr., now a 46-year-old in Delhi, who at the time served as the personal driver throughout the production for actress Valeria Golino. Baxter’s father worked as Cruise’s driver. Since then, the younger Baxter has set aside his construction company hard hat to serve as a driver and “transportation captain” whenever Hollywood comes to town.

“One weekend, Tom Cruise rented out Malibu Grand Prix on a Sunday and we all spent the day just racing cars. Yep, I raced go-carts with Tom Cruise—and that was before he made ‘Days of Thunder,’” Baxter recalled. “Then one weekend, he came out to my father’s farm in Hebron and we rode horses. He had a Range Rover and we went four-wheeling. He was a regular guy, just a really great guy.”

In 1990, the producers of “A Rage in

Harlem” turned to Over-the-Rhine. Tony Darnell Davis found himself at the right place at the right time. Producers used the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati, a now defunct center, to cast extras for the film. Davis, the center’s director, wound up in a scene with Forrest Whitaker, playing the “stickman” who runs a craps table.

“The original final cut had me in there for about a minute, but depending on where they’re showing it, like on TV, they’ll cut my visual part but you can still hear my voice,” Davis said. “I still get paid either way. I still get a residual check every now and then.”

Davis, who at one time held a Screen Actors Guild card, also appeared in “City of Hope” and other locally made fare, including “Milk Money” and “Redlegs.” The latter film is from Cincinnati native Brandon Harris, who lives in New York but pledges to continue making films in his hometown.

Longtime Cincinnati photographer William Messer sat on the board and still advises the Cincinnati Film Society. He remembers producers of “A Rage in Harlem” shooting scenes inside the Emery Theater, using the upper floor of 1313 Main St. as a nightclub and building an entire floor and a half at a vacant lot on Central Parkway near Walnut Street.

“It was supposed to be the top of a building for Gregory Hines to jump off of,” Messer said. “I remember walking down the street and running into Gregory. He was walking in the opposite direction, but I turned around and thought I’m going to walk however far he’s going just to be with him.”

For all the success in luring filmmakers here, Latria Roberts is devoted to making Cincinnati a fertile ground for homegrown talent. In 2010, Roberts began rebuilding the dormant Cincinnati Film Society from scratch, shifting its mission from screening boutique films to one of education and support for young, emerging and established local talent.

Last fall, under Roberts, the film society began a mentorship program for teen filmmakers and animators. It has also developed small cash award programs for local filmmakers, a filmmakers exchange program with cities in Japan, Germany and France and the seeds of a residency program to provide housing and equipment to two filmmakers each year.

“I’ve seen cities like San Francisco, where they have great support for local filmmakers, so instead of moving to those cities, I wanted to create the infrastructure here for my friends and fellow colleagues and see the community grow,” said Roberts, whose own creative focus is screenwriting.

“Having those Hollywood films come to town helps excite the people the film society wants supporting the community on an independent level,” she said. “But unless they’re avid filmgoers, I think people forget about film as an art and about the creative stages of it. I really want to see this be a city where local filmmakers can live and succeed.” 

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