Is Valley ready for its closeup? Walla Walla Film Office scouts for reel deals

It hopes the June airing of an AMC program is expected spur more local business from the film industry.


Using their combined experiences in Hollywood, Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce president David Woolson, left, and events coordinator Casi Smith talk about their new endeavour to create and promote a “Film Office” for the area.

Using their combined experiences in Hollywood, Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce president David Woolson, left, and events coordinator Casi Smith talk about their new endeavour to create and promote a “Film Office” for the area. Photo by Matthew Zimmerman Banderas.

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If the Walla Walla Film Office had its own telephone line, it would have been ringing off the hook over the last three months.

Since January, when a film and television production crew came to the community for four days, filming a new unscripted talent docu-series for the AMC network, talk of Walla Walla’s cinematic virtues has apparently trickled through Hollywood.

David Woolson, head of the Film Office, knows this because he was contacted about another potential AMC show. Still in early development, the show is a drama with a wine country angle.

That call came to the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce office, where Woolson is also chief executive officer and where the Film Office is really more of a conceptual branch.

Capitalizing on the film and television background of Woolson and now, too, new Chamber Events Coordinator Casi Smith, the Film Office is designed to build economic development by putting Walla Walla in the spotlight.

The office — one of several initiatives in the organization’s Chamber Works Project — launched last September in tandem with the announcement about Walla Walla’s role in the reality talent show.

“Showville,” an eight-episode series, begins May 23. Walla Walla’s episode will be the third, set to air on AMC on June 6.

The unscripted show has already contributed to Walla Walla’s economy by about $50,000 — a splash in the bucket compared to big-budget films but a healthy boost during a four-day period in the bone-dry tourism month of January. The money was spent on hotel, car rentals, restaurants and other services. Fifteen people were also hired to crew the show.

Woolson believes that amount is just the beginning. When the show airs, it will also give Walla Walla more exposure and could attract attention from anyone from possible visitors looking for a vacation getaway to other television and film scouts seeking their next place to shoot.

“My hope is this will open doors. Great exposure can drive tourism.”

Before his return to the Walla Walla Valley as CEO for the Chamber, Woolson was head of the Oregon Film Commission. He recruited upward of 70 productions for the organization, from car commercials to films. “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Maverick” and the “Free Willy” franchise were among the movies made during his time with the commission. He also had been a senior executive and attorney with Paramount Pictures, Orion Pictures and Dick Clark Productions.

“He is keenly aware of what’s there,” said Amy Lillard, executive director of the state film commission, Washington Filmworks. “He’s ready to seize the opportunities.

Woolson reached out to Washington Filmworks as another endeavor in building Walla Walla’s profile for film.

Until then, Walla Walla hadn’t really been on the map for Seattle-based Washington Filmworks, whose mission is to create economic development for the state in the motion-picture industry.

The majority of filming landed by the organization takes place in Spokane and Seattle, the state’s two production hubs. But Lillard said the office is always looking for “location collateral that you can’t find in those two production centers.”

She made her first scouting trip to the Valley in April, along with production services coordinator Krys Karns. They found a number of features unlike anywhere else: the density of wineries and vineyards, the historic small town of Waitsburg and a Port district supportive of filmmaking and willing to open its holdings for shooting.

“You can only shoot at an airport in so many places,” Lillard said in a telephone interview. “To be able to take over, potentially, a location like an airport is incredibly attractive to a producer.”

Woolson said the community’s three college campuses, rolling wheat fields, historic buildings, classic neighborhoods, parks and other scenery could also serve as attractions. He envisions winding back roads as ideal for automotive commercials.

After Walla Walla was listed as the featured community of the month on the Washington Filmworks’ contact list, Woolson has received a couple of inquiries about potential spots.

For one shoot, filmmakers were looking for an industrial area that had seen better days. In another, they were looking for an abandoned shopping mall. Neither worked out. However, the inclusion in the scouting and potential to have more filmmaking here was a good sign to Woolson.

Lillard said this is exactly how it works for her office, which is typically the first point of contact for permitting, resource information and potential connections to crews. “If we don’t know the answers, we go out to our liaisons,” she said.

The program is twofold: It works to raise $3.5 million to match business- and occupation-tax funds in incentive dollars to reward filmmakers for shooting in Washington, and to assist in productions from conception to completion. Between March and December 2012, the organization received 224 nonincentive-based project inquiries. “That, right there, is evidence that there’s ample opportunities,” Lillard said.

Of those, about 70 completed principal photography within Washington state — but that’s just the number the office could track, she said. Of those, 25 were in “unique jurisdictions,” outside of Spokane and Seattle.

“Walla Walla has a true opportunity here,” Lillard said. “The success of those jurisdictions has everything to do with the community understanding and welcoming the productions.”

While serving Chamber members is still Woolson’s priority, the Film Office has unlimited potential to contribute to economic development.

“When you are successful in recruiting those types of productions, they need services — dry cleaners, restaurants, hotels, car rentals,” Woolson said. “I don’t think it’s any stretch to say everyone in the Yellow Pages benefits.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321 or vickihillhouse@wwub.com.

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