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“Why would anyone want to film a movie in Rock Island?” That’s what Tarah Sipes, Rock Island’s community and economic development manager, asked herself when she first learned of a plan – then known as “Project Film” – to bring a Quad Cities Film Office to her city. “To me it seemed like a lot of work for very little reward,” she said, before adding, “After looking at the project as an economic development project – understanding the existing assets, compiling the assets, and marketing the assets – the feasibility of this effort became more clear.” Ms. Sipes can be forgiven for her initial skepticism. Despite the films, documentaries, television shows and commercials that have been shot in this area of the Midwest, many longtime Quad Citians still are unaware of the great locations and the depth of talent and experience that can be mined in the bistate region, insiders say. Davenport’s Doug Miller, however, is intimately familiar with what the Quad Cities has to offer entertainment productions. His Two Rivers & Associates production company has focused for more than 30 years on bringing entertainment projects to the bistate region. That includes working for the past three years to create a Quad Cities Film Office. He also has a wide range of government, community and industry connections, which led Illinois to offer Mr. Miller a contract to help Ms. Sipes set up and, if all goes well, run a new Quad Cities Regional Film Office. The seed money for the startup will come from a one-year, $65,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO). It also could be renewed for a second year. “This grant came from discussions with Doug Miller and others to incentivize film production in the Quad Cities,” said Illinois state Rep. Mike Halpin, a legislative leader who has worked to extend critical tax credits to expand the state’s exploding film industry, which last year hit a projected record high of $630 million. Mr. Halpin and Mr. Miller credited The Illinois Film Production Tax Credit Act for a large chunk of that success. It’s also why the Rock Island Democrat and other lawmakers successfully pushed to extend and expand it. “Recently, as part of reauthorizing that tax credit we’ve tried to capitalize on the Illinois Quad Cities as a film destination outside Chicago, given our diverse natural, rural and urban settings,” Mr. Halpin told the QCBJ. First adopted in 2008, that act offers a 30% tax credit for qualified production spending and labor expenditures. Under the 2022 expansion, benefits were extended as of July 1 to include a capped credit for resident and non-resident compensation under qualified expenditures, as well as the establishment of a workforce training program. Applicants also can now receive 15% tax credit on salaries paid to individuals who live in economically disadvantaged areas. Mr. Halpin said the QC office will be a liaison with the national film industry, the Illinois Film Office, local governments, local creators and the QC film workforce. “The goal is to facilitate local projects, and demonstrate that our community is film friendly and prepared to meet the needs of the industry,” he said. “Many successful films have already been shot in this region, and we plan to attract many more.”
Why QC needs a film officeMr. Miller has had a hand in many of those projects and he knows the impact such productions and relationships have on a local economy. The bigger the budget, the larger the payoff, of course. Blockbusters like “Field of Dreams” based in Dyersville, Iowa, are “manna from heaven,” Mr. Miller said. But films like HBO’s “Sugar” – shot, in part, in Davenport and Burlington, Iowa – paid big dividends for the Quad Cities region even with a modest budget of about $5 million. That’s why Mr. Miller said he’d like to see the Quad Cities attract a movie project, big budget or small, at least every other year. “Doug’s goal is a great one,” Ms. Sipes agreed. “In my mind, if the Quad Cities Regional Film Office can help to create a landscape where more local productions occur and we attract a couple million dollars within the next five years, my efforts will have been worth it.“ Smaller projects also will matter in achieving that goal. Consider, for example, that 80% of the state’s film tax credit money goes for television commercials, Mr. Miller said. Ms. Sipes acknowledged that competition for business “is certainly stiff, but we want people to know that Rock Island, and the Quad Cities, is an option that exists.” That means getting noticed and it begins with working with Rock Island’s Augustana College to develop a website as soon as funding is released from the state. “Once the website is up and running,” Ms. Sipes said, “we hope to help our local folks connect with existing industry directories, like the Illinois Production Guide, to be sure we are able to accurately represent the assets that exist in the Quad Cities. I see us hosting discussion groups and informational sessions as the work continues so that we can draw on the knowledge that exists and be sure everyone is moving forward together.”
Why not Rock Island, QC?“Maybe we will never bring a blockbuster film production to the Quad Cities, but you never know,” Ms. Sipes added. “A production does not have to be a multi-million dollar ordeal to have an impact in our local economy. Every time a local actor or technical expert is hired for a production those are real dollars that are being spent here. If sound stages are booked and there is a need for a space, why not Rock Island? If we can help someone understand how it can work, and that there are people here who understand industry standards, then Rock Island, and the Quad Cities, become an attractive option.” For some in Hollywood the Quad Cities area already is on the map. Filmmakers including the Farrelly Brothers and the prolific Italian Director Pupi Avati have shot projects here and know what the Quad Cities community brings to a production. Local leaders also know what a thriving film industry brings to the QC. “The film and television production industry is important to tourism and our brand,” Visit Quad Cities President and CEO Dave Herrell told the QCBJ. “The industry generates positive economic development opportunities, creates and sustains jobs, and has a positive impact on tourism.” “Moreover, having productions in your backyard will support a multitude of small businesses and position your community through the added awareness the final product will deliver,” the leader of the Quad Cities bistate destination marketing organization added. “Productions can take weeks and months and can also help shape perception and your community’s story. In addition, a lot of visitors are intrigued by where certain productions have occurred, so they add to your unique destination experience.”
Return on films is sweetTake, for example, “Sugar,” that HBO film about a top pitching prospect from the Dominican Republic playing on a Midwest minor league team in the fictional community of Bridgeport, Iowa. The film by Hunting Lane Films and Journeyman Pictures for HBO prominently featured Modern Woodmen Park on Davenport’s riverfront, and included actual baseball players from what then was the Quad Cities Swing. The Centennial Bridge also starred prominently in one of the film’s widely distributed posters. “It was an experience of a lifetime,” recalls John Marx, a long-time Quad Cities reporter and columnist, who moonlighted on the film. “Locally, Doug Miller brought the film to life with the help of (then) Swing General Manager Mike ‘Yogi’ Weindruch. They secured the site and Doug laid all the groundwork with the State of Iowa. With the help of Dennis Hitchcock, Circa 21’s longtime executive producer, we secured every extra you saw in the film. The baseball talent was homegrown and handpicked.’’ Mr. Marx, a former scout for the Houston Astros and a member of the National Semi-Pro Baseball Hall of Fame, served as a consultant and played the team manager in the film. “The producer, Jamie Patricof, was amazing,” Mr. Marx said. “He was so enamored with the Quad-Cities, often riding his bike throughout, just to get a glimpse of all that we offer. He was a California kid who went to Emory University in Atlanta, but truly fell in love with the Quads, the river and the people.” Connections like that matter in the moviemaking industry, Mr. Miller said, as much as the financial contributions they make to the places where they are filmed which also are considerable. “It should be noted these people spent one full month in the Quad Cities, staying at the (former) Lodge in Bettendorf,” Mr. Marx added. “They shopped here in their free time, they sampled every restaurant they could and they went bowling a minimum of two nights a week.” The production kept all its “excellent” craft services local as well. “They gave back in so many ways,” Mr. Marx said. “They were part of the fabric. Personally, I met people I never would have met through the movie, some I still stay in contact with. The Quad Cities was engaged. Three times, we had over a thousand people show up to be baseball scene extras.” For those reasons and more, Mr. Marx said, “Whatever we can do along political lines to make this happen again, we should. Two of the best baseball movies ever made came to life in Iowa. I had a chance to ‘have a catch’ with Kevin Costner in Iowa and he said he loved every minute of Field of Dreams and the people he met. If you polled everyone involved with ‘Sugar,’ they would tell you the same.” Those experiences also will matter as the new QC film office begins to compete for projects, local economic development leaders say. “We have been fortunate to have productions in the past and are hopeful that the Quad Cities Film Office will provide value and opportunities in the future,” Mr. Herrell said. “It is a highly competitive space and states and municipalities are recognizing that strategic investments are necessary coupled with the infrastructure, incentives, and policy required to be competitively positioned in the marketplace.” It helps to have effective partners, he said. They include: Northwest Illinois Film Office, the Illinois Film Services Tax Credit, the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and Produce Iowa, the state’s office of media production and the Illinois Film Office and the Chicago Film Office.
Region rich in creative assets“The Quad Cities has a lot that we can offer from geographic position, diverse backdrops, architecture, unique downtowns, farmland, our global asset – the Mississippi River, and our people,” Mr. Herrell said. “Our creatives in-market matched with talented crews, a variety of accommodations, and affordability are just a part of the tools we have in the toolbelt.” Mr. Miller said that toolbelt also includes locally sourced movie-making and lighting equipment, experienced production veterans and the local talent and production experts required to make movies, television shows and commercials. “I see the existing arts scene as a huge asset to any film office,” Ms. Sipes added. “We know that we have skilled set dressers, costumers, makeup artists, musicians, visual artists, lighting and sound professionals, and many others that can support efforts to create a film.” Many are members of Local 85 of the IATSE. And the Quad Cities branch of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees & Moving Picture Operators of the United States & Canada has pushed for the film office’s creation. Geography also helps, Mr. Miller said. The Quad Cities is served by the Quad Cities International Airport. It boasts great sites within an hour’s drive in every direction. And when passenger rail service to Moline finally takes off, Mr. Miller added, “That brings Chicago to our front door; actors and everything else.” Mr. Miller and Ms. Sipes are taking nothing for granted, however. “We haven’t done it yet,” Mr. Miller said of creating a QC film office. “I’ve got to prove-up. Baby steps; we get our word out, let people know and go back to the people we’ve already worked with before and remind them we’re the best bang for the buck you can get.” Ms. Sipes added, “We are not certain what the future looks like, but through this relationship with Doug (Miller) we hope to have public facing information available and to have started a conversation with the larger community so that our local people know how to become ‘plugged in’ to efforts and activities of the film office.”
QC on the big, small screenOver the years, numerous films, television shows, documentaries and commercials have been made, in part, in the Quad Cities. Below, in no particular order, is a sampling and the year of release:
- Children of the Corn, 2009, SyFy channel film remake of the original release of the same name. It is based on the Stephen King short story.
- Megafault, 2009, SyFy film featuring Brittany Murphy, who died unexpectedly on Dec. 20, 2009. It included a cameo by then-Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba.
- Sugar, 2008, sports drama for HBO, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; gross: $1.08 million.
- Bix, 1991, award-winning Biopic of Davenport’s Bix Beiderbecke, directed by Italian Director Pupi Avati.
- Beauty Queen Butcher, 1991, made-for-video film featuring a Sylvan Slough beauty queen gone berserk.
- An American Love, 1994, comedy romance starring Brooke Shields and Carlo Della Piane.
- The Childhood Friend, 1994, a Pupi Avati horror thriller film starring Jason Robards III.
- The Hideout, 2007, drama horror film directed by Pupi Avati, starring Treat Williams, Burt Young and Angela Pagano.
- WhiteBoyz, 1999, comedy drama, starring Danny Hoch, Dash Mihok, Mark Webber, Piper Perabo and Snoop Dogg.
- The Now, 2021, Farrelly Brothers television series featuring Dave Franco, Darryl Hannah and Bill Murray and exteriors of Rock Island and Moline.