Filmmakers hoping to build local movie industry

Northwest Film School working to bring movie-makers to Bellingham

Glen Berry trains local film students through his business, Northwest Film School. The school has partnered with Western Washington University in offering a one-year film certificate program, open to the community and Western students.

Heidi Schiller
   Instead of swimming with film industry sharks in Hollywood, Glen Berry set his sights on being a big film fish in the little pond of Bellingham.
   Since opening the Northwest Film School in 2004, Berry has pictured Bellingham as an ideal place to develop a small, independent filmmaking industry. His vision may become reality as he recently partnered with Western Washington University to offer a one-year film certification program through the university’s extended education program — setting the stage for a community with all the components needed to cultivate a film industry.

Lights …
   On a recent weekday afternoon at La Vie en Rose Bakery, Berry — a verbose 33-year-old Bellingham native — drank milk with his chocolate croissant. Prone to tangentially waxing passionate on filmmaking, he discussed his enthusiasm about his major project: directing a film school.
   In his college days, Berry searched Washington, Oregon and Idaho for a university with a four-year, accredited film program, and came up empty-handed. According to Berry, there are still no such programs in these states.
   So he settled on the nearest in-country option at Montana State University. In 1997, he graduated with a film degree and watched his friends’ swift exodus to Los Angeles.
   But Berry disliked L.A. and vowed to work in the Northwest.
   “I always felt like if you wanted to work independently, which is what I wanted to do — be a producer, director or a writer — you’re better off doing it someplace else,” he said. “I wanted to be in a place I could cultivate my own team and investing sources, and work in a much more supportive community, like here in Bellingham, unlike L.A.”
   Instead of following the southbound flock, he started an instructional independent filmmaking website, called Film Underground, as well as worked for Cyber Film School, which he now owns and operates.
   “I discovered in doing these websites over time that no matter how many articles you publish and no matter how many e-mails you write, (students) always have more questions. It gets to a certain point where in order to teach certain things and convey certain ideas, you need to have a more dynamic interaction with those people,” he said. “So I had an idea to do a film program here in Bellingham, because the market was totally empty.”

Camera …
   He started writing a business plan and doing market research in the spring of 2004. He offered his first intro to film class at the Pickford Dream Space in the summer. The unaccredited, for-profit, Northwest Film School grew from there: Berry moved into the Bay Street Village, added studio equipment and recruited local filmmaking experts to teach a rotating array of film classes. This winter, the school had about 24 regular students who choose from two tracks: a fiction one that emphasizes narrative storytelling, and a non-fiction track for documentarians.
   David Albright, a 22-year-old Fairhaven College student, designed his own nonfiction video-production major that involves classes with Northwest Film School.
   Through the school he produced an oral history documentary about Georgia-Pacific’s Bellingham plant. The project took six months to make and the final 45-minute film focuses on interviews from six G-P retirees. He showed it at the Whatcom Film Association’s Projections Film Festival last year.
   Another student, Jordan Montreuil, has worked on several projects through the film school, including a short he wrote and directed called “Bounceback,” also shown at Projections. The 25-year-old, who works as a checker at Haggen and does freelance digital-effects work in his spare time, is working on his next film short and ultimately wants to produce a feature film.
   Berry designed the school so that all of the instructors are working professionals, all the better to offer internships and work placement opportunities to students in order to cultivate a Bellingham film industry. He said the arrangements are good for both students and instructors — the students get professional experience and faculty get a talent pool to groom as future workers.
   Albright and another student, for example, have been working at local video and DVD-recording store Camcord@Large, and two other students are working at a local studio, Hand Crank Films.
   One of the students’ major professional internship experiences has been working with B-movie magnate Albert Pyun, an L.A. transplant living on Whidbey Island who has produced more than 40 feature films, Berry said. Most famous for his film Cyborg, with Jean Claude Van Damme, Pyun has also made movies starring Charlie Sheen, Steven Seagal and Teri Hatcher. Berry’s students have spent the past winter collaborating with Pyun on a feature film, and at the end of April, Berry took six students to Los Angeles to help with production of Pyun’s new film, Bulletface.
   However, being an unaccredited school up until recently, the program has been less structured than Berry has wanted because students tended to only take classes they are interested in, and no official prerequisites exist in the curriculum to force the students to take classes Berry felt they needed.
   He knew he needed to pursue accreditation, and in the last six months began researching how to go about it.

   Serendipitously, a week after his decision to pursue accreditation, he was contacted by Carol Nicolay, director of professional studies through Western’s extended education and summer programs department.
   Berry and Nicolay worked out a deal for Northwest Film School to partner with the college in offering a one-year film certificate program, open to the community and Western students.
   Through the arrangement, Northwest Film School will provide faculty and equipment to Western and will continue placing students in local professional internships beginning in the fall.
   After signing the deal with Western, Berry closed the Bay Street Village location and is taking a break to work on the new curriculum.
   Nicolay said the idea for a film certificate grew out of a demand from students who were asking for such a program. She said the partnership with a local business is something Western wants to do more of.
   “We look for those kinds of partnerships,” she said. “One of my goals is to make those business connections and I’m finding a lot of interest in that. There are two things that are positive about it: The university has the educational resources and the businesses have the needs, and what we haven’t done enough of is marrying the two.”
   The film program at Western will cost between $3,400 to $3,700 for the entire program, which will run from October to June and culminate in a screening of the students’ work.
   Nicolay said that in addition to offering students a sought-after program, the university will market it to local businesses interested in creating promotional videos for their companies. Classes will include once-a-week, three-hour sessions and weekend workshops, she said.
   “It’s going to be an intensive experience, but quite doable for someone who is working,” she said.
   For Berry, the move signifies one more step in creating a community conducive to becoming a filmmaking industry.

A Mini-Vancouver?
   Berry describes Bellingham’s big northern neighbor, Vancouver, British Columbia, as a service industry for feature-film productions that originate in Hollywood, and thinks Bellingham could become a smaller version of this model.
   “It is possible, yes,” he said. “Bellingham could be known as a place to do low-budget independent films.”
   Until now, Bellingham has had a weekender film mentality, he said, for people who make movies as a hobby or a form of self-expression. But Berry would like to see that evolve.
   Bellingham has all the needed components: a film festival, such as Projections; a film school, such as Northwest Film School and Western’s certificate program, and working studios, such as his, Hand Crank Films and 360 Studios.
   All are dependent on and feed into each other, he said. The film school helps develop talent. Festivals help drive the talent to create a product as well as market the film community to outside film-industry professionals. And outside professionals will hopefully come to the area to make films using the students who have acquired the filmmaking skills.
   Berry also sees the potential for filmmakers in Bellingham to produce small Internet films, which he said is an emerging film market because they require less infrastructure and financing.
   “The whole point is to build up a team of experienced crew that can work on projects here,” he said. “The school feeds into this professional pool of people to work on professional films. I think a lot of people would be really excited if we brought feature films to Bellingham.”

Incentives for filmmaking in Washington State

Last year, the Washington state legislature passed an incentive for filmmakers looking at making their next movie, TV show or commercial in Washington state. The incentive provides a 20-percent rebate to producers on in-state spending, according to Suzy Kellet, managing director for the Washington State Film Office, a division of Community, Trade and Economic Development (CTED).
   Officially launched at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2007, the incentive program uses a fund of up to $3.5 million a year, generated through Business and Occupation taxes, to give filmmakers the rebates. So far, Kellet said many producers are currently applying for the incentive and two films have already been accepted.
   “It’s just now beginning,” she said. “The industry is shopping for money before they check out locations.”
   About 30 to 35 states have some kind of incentive package for filmmakers, with New Mexico and Louisiana being the most aggressive, she said. Washington’s incentive package won’t attract the big blockbusters, however; it is more attractive to the $1 million–to-$10 million productions, she said.
   Film production can act as a source of economic development for the state’s communities, Kellet said. Filmmakers come into town, hire local crew, actors and security guards, and purchase goods and services from vendors, such as camera rentals, lights and casting services. But Kellet maintains the community needs to have these things in place in order to look attractive to a producer.
   “You need to have a crew base, some vendors to rent equipment from, and you have to let people know that that’s available,” she said.
   The Washington State Film Office acts as a resource and guide for potential filmmakers, with a digital library of thousands of images of local communities.
   Kellet said the office also has 40 liaisons around the state that act as the office’s eyes on the ground, including John Cooper, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.
   Last year, the office, with a $310,000 budget, brought in $20 million in direct spending from filmmakers, Kellet said. Most of these films were shot in Seattle and Spokane, but Kellet said she thinks Bellingham has potential.
   “Bellingham is a natural offshoot for filming, if it can bring up its production base,” she said.
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