‘Lincoln’ could pay state ‘Dirty Dancing’ dividends

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Print this page by Robert Powell

In Richmond, you can follow the footsteps of President Abraham Lincoln, who visited the smoldering city on April 4, 1865, the day after it was set ablaze by retreating Confederate soldiers.

In a few months, tourists also may be able to retrace the path of Steven Spielberg through the city as he directed a movie about Lincoln.

That may be just one byproduct Virginia expects to reap from Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which will be released late this year.

Spielberg’s production, starring Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, spent an estimated $35 million in Virginia while filming in Richmond and Petersburg from last June through January. That spending has resulted in at least $62 million in total economic impact, says Rita McClenny, head of the Virginia Film Office who also is interim CEO of Virginia Tourism Corp.

Landing “Lincoln” was a big win for the film office, which is now trying to snag a remake of the 1987 blockbuster “Dirty Dancing.” Although the original movie was set in New York’s Catskill Mountains, Virginia always has had a close association with “Dirty Dancing” because it was filmed at Mountain Lake in Giles County.

Producers of the remake seem eager to recapture the magic of the original film. Kenny Ortega, its director, choreographed the iconic dance sequences in the first movie. “We don’t know yet who will play Johnny and Baby,” McClenny said in a recent talk to alumni of LEAD Virginia, a statewide leadership development group.

McClenny cites “Dirty Dancing” as an example of the enduring dividends that Virginia gets when a popular movie is filmed here. In addition to fans who continue to make pilgrimages to Mountain Lake, the movie inspired a British television reality series, “Dirty Dancing: The Time of Your Life.” The show followed dancers in 2007 and 2008 as they competed at Mountain Lake for an entertainment contract with a Los Angeles agency.

In the 25 years since “Dirty Dancing” was released, however, the competition among states to become film sites has become fierce. Forty-two states offer some sort of incentives for production companies, just as they do for economic development prospects. On a daily basis, Virginia competes for films with Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee.

To attract film projects, Virginia offers incentives using its Governor’s Motion Picture Opportunity Fund, which last year totaled $3 million, and a $2.5 million refundable tax credit program, which credits productions for hiring Virginians and purchasing Virginia goods and services. “Lincoln” also was offered in-kind contributions worth $1.1 million by waiving permitting fees and location fees on state property.

Despite such largesse, McClenny says Virginia ranks “near the bottom” in incentives. Nonetheless, it remains very competitive in attracting films tied to history, which are produced by “independents” outside the major studios or are documentaries.
The film office actually began working on the “Lincoln” project in 2003. “It’s an overnight success of eight years,” McClenny quips.

The movie is based on the critically acclaimed book “A Team of Rivals,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. It profiles Lincoln and the members of his Cabinet, many of whom ran against him in the 1860 presidential election. (Spielberg and Goodwin, in fact, will appear at the Richmond Forum on Jan. 5 in Richmond.)

McClenny says Spielberg was aware of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War currently being observed in Virginia, but that was not his reason for doing the movie now and shooting in the commonwealth. “He has a passion for telling this story, and Virginia was pivotal in the period,” McClenny says.

Her six-person office helps production companies find locations throughout the state and during filming runs interference on last-minute problems. “Things rarely go entirely as expected,” she says.

Spielberg has told state officials that Lincoln will not be released until after the November elections. McClenny’s guess is that means sometime in late November or December, but she predicts, “It won’t be a Christmas movie” like last year’s “War Horse,” another Spielberg project.

“Lincoln” will premiere in Richmond, and the film office will use photos from the movie as a “tourism vehicle” to drive visitors to the state. McClenny envisions a website campaign that might encourage tourists to walk in Spielberg’s footsteps as they visit film locations around Central Virginia.

“Lincoln” actually is the third film Spielberg has directed in Virginia (the other two were “War of the Worlds” and “Minority Report”). And it will not be his last. “He told us, ‘I will be back,’ “ McClenny says.

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