IS THE CREATIVE ECONOMY READY FOR ITS SPOTLIGHT? a blogpost by Todd Clark

DSC01589If you start talking about the Creative Economy in D.C. to someone who has recently moved to the region- Surprise! Guess what?  These days you just might get a nod of recognition that what you are talking about is familiar- and it might even be the reason they moved here.  However, it is also probably more than likely that you will still get a look of confusion or a blank stare.  In fact, ignorance of the power of the Creative Economy- which generates more than $5 billion of income each year, is probably more of a typical response for the majority of new arrivals to DC – but it is also a mindset for the majority of long-time residents too. The majority of people who don’t actually work in the creative economy also typically don’t recognize its existence and growing power. And for a long while, it has seemed that this way of thinking was also true for the District Government.

The exciting, hopefully rewarding—and also sometimes frustrating and difficult challenge, is that for those who do work in this powerful and growing sector of the economy, there is a perennial concern (and a survival-based interest) to find ways to continue to grow one’s businesses and do well- whether you are a freelance animator working on a special-focus education project or a large production house doing high-level public policy or nationally distributed corporate commercial work.

The reality is that the Creative Economy- the District’s creative base, is the third largest employer in the District, accounting for one in five jobs, adding up to over 75,000 direct jobs and including such fields as: the building arts, design, film and media, communications, performing and visual arts, museum management and culinary arts. As a member of the film and media communications field, I am of course curious about my own ability, and yours, to continue to grow and earn a living in the Creative Economy.

And given the recent appointment of Herbert Niles, perhaps the ability to grow your business might happen with some support from his office- the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development (OMPTD).  If you are a member of TIVA, WIFV or the Producers Guild – or a seasoned producer or even a first year film graduate student that is not a member yet, you are probably curious why I might say that. Let me tell you why: Along with a willingness to discuss and hear input on how their current $4 million (OMPTD) budget should be spent, there is a new effort by OMPTD to reach out and learn what the needs of film/video/media community are and how they can be supported. We are undergoing the beginning of what could be a very fruitful conversation.

DSC01467In a very quick period of time, after Mr. Niles became Interim Director of the Office of Motion Picture and Television  Development a few months ago, he organized and hosted a Creative Media DC Roundtable at the District Building, to which he invited close to 35 representatives from a variety of media/film/video-relevant industry perspectives. Participants included both small freelance and large studio producers, ad agency CEO’s, consulting firms, film festival directors, media trade associations, University Film programs/media departments, community cable stations, recruiting firms and real estate development companies. The  main purpose of this unique gathering was to discuss how the District could better support the growth of the DC Creative and Digital Media Industry.  The major goals of the meeting were to:

1) Define the local media ecosystem (and the diverse industries and creative economic activities that make up this sector).

2)  Identify the strengths of the industry and the competitive advantages unique to DC’s media ecosystem.

3)  Identify the challenges facing the local media industry (what are the competitive disadvantages to maintaining a successful and sustainable media industry business     or be a thriving independent contractor in DC).

4)  Offer ideas about how local government (and OMPTD in particular) can offer solutions to mitigate those challenges, and constructively partner with the media industry

In his welcoming remarks to the group on Dec. 16, 2013, Niles said that the meeting was convened as a natural follow through from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development’s (DMPED) 5-year strategy of supporting the Creative Economy.  The meeting was also proof that the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, under his new leadership, is off to a brand new and refreshing start. Through this first Roundtable meeting and in dozens of individual, face-face meetings he has held over the last few months, it is clear that Herbert is making a concerted effort to connect with and listen to the needs and learn the issues of the film/video and digital media community.

When I first polled TIVA members a few months ago and asked how the OMPTD could better serve our industry, the comments that came back included:

1) The suggestion that the OMPTD consider exploring a broadcast sales tax exemption for clients creating videos for broadcast.

2) Strengthen and make more efficient the process for setting up an account and tax id number with the DC tax office for non-DC companies.

3) Streamline access to key locations around DC and create a more efficient system for working with MPD, National Park Service, etc.  to get permits.

All of these are real concerns and important, but right now, the OMPTD looks like they are prepared to go a whole lot further to support and help our industry.  This article is a summary of some of the concerns, observations and ongoing issues that were discussed at the Roundtable as well as some observations from people I talked with after the meeting took place. There was not uniform agreement on all of the issues presented, but there was clear recognition and uniform acknowledgement that this was a huge step forward in the right direction.

DSC01344So first- a little history. Let’s begin with terms. References to the “Creative Industry” didn’t occur until the 1990’s when the proliferation of media and digital technology and the increasingly localized, national and applied arts studies had begun to occur.  By 1997, ‘The Creative Industry’ had been defined by the UK Department for Culture, Media and sports as: “those industries that have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.”

Fast forward to the first large-scale discussions and exploration of the Creative Economy in Washington, D.C.  In the spring of 2010, the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership and the DC Office of Planning, (along with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities as a partner), released the Creative DC Action Agenda. The purpose of the study was to quantify and put into context the Creative Economy of the District of Columbia.

According to its authors, the initial Creative Economy Forum (which took place in 2009) and the subsequent assessment and report, were undertaken “in the context of a growing realization of the vital role that the creative economy could play in supporting globally competitive cities”, (which naturally Washington, D.C. aspires towards becoming/maintaining).  And so began the first steps of a concerted effort to try and better understand how the Creative Economy could provide meaningful employment opportunities for a diverse and growing workforce here in the District.  The Creative DC Action Agenda in fact, yielded a blueprint of strategies designed to strengthen this sector. However, that initial study also recognized that the District’s creative base faced unique challenges, and in many ways was not (and is still not) leveraging its full potential.

Herbert put it plainly when he welcomed us with the message that The Creative Media DC Roundtable was convened because “the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development wants to find the linkage between our office’s plans for development and the capabilities and needs and possible collaborative projects of the local video/film/television industry”.

The first discussion of the Roundtable centered around the question of what curriculum changes are occurring in film/media studies programs at local universities and colleges that reflect a changing industry, and the answer from TIVA member, John Douglas at AU, was that students are still interested in- and being offered- courses in everything from 16mm film production to chasing all of the new media formats that are constantly evolving.

DSC01598Journalism as a field, is in very transitional times right now. People are necessarily needing to become digital strategists on every level.  And there are some companies that have recognized the key to their own success lies in matching available talent with those needs.  Adam Slagowski of HUGE- a new, successful and growing full-service digital agency, said that they chose to recently locate in the Shaw neighborhood of DC for a few important reasons: “There are more stable households than ever before; there is a highly talented pool of IT specialists who are leaving govt. jobs; (and yet the federal govt. will also provide them with 20% of their work load); D.C is where many customers with support systems are located; the start-up community is robust and lastly, DC is very family-friendly.” All of those factors have worked well to help grow his company.

And yet there are lingering issues of concern with smaller production companies and with the free-lance community as a whole. The fact of the matter is that there is an incredibly large freelance community- including directors, shooters, editors, and in particular, graphics/animators,  but they are not easily connected to each other or easily found…unless of course they have joined an association with a well-functioning list-serv such as those provided by TIVA or WIFV. And yet there are also larger production houses that are recognizing that the industry is changing and becoming more ‘one-man band oriented’, with the increased availability of affordable equipment and more on-site capability, and as a result some of those companies  are letting their long-standing memberships lapse in these associations, because they just weren’t generating any work for them.

And to make the point that independent operators are a large and emerging presence, Melissa Houghton of WIFV suggested that what is missing in DC is a dedicated support structure for this side of the industry. “There are no film cooperatives where high-end access to technology could be made available to talented people that just can’t afford it.  Meaning, right now there is limited access to expensive software that freelance graphics talent could take advantage of in ‘play spaces’. Maybe the district could subsidize a media fund.” She suggested that, “there is a tremendous need for sustainability in the industry-….access and use of dedicated, meaningfully sized space, with many offices, desks for interns.” This was a theme that came up frequently and it was pointed out that other jurisdictions are taking the lead in creating Arts/Creative Corridors. For instance, the Rosslyn, Virginia BID has created a corridor that extends from the Artisphere down to where the LMNO agency is located.  Could the OMPTD support a similar enterprise/arts corridor here in DC?

Currently, there is some discussion in D.C. about a proposed new space- perhaps a large centralized studio (10,000+ square feet).  Most of the reaction at the Roundtable instead centered around the need to first develop a useful and up-to-date facility directory- that by creating a clearinghouse of information about space rental options, both freelancers looking for space as well as studios who could now be more easily found, would find this information extremely valuable. John Douglas talked about the high number of requests that come to him at AU for screening facilities, which they have trouble handling. On the other hand, it was mentioned that there are plenty of potential production spaces that aren’t being well utilized, such as the BET studios and Paul Falcon studios.

housesMost agreed that what is needed- if anything is to be built- are smaller plug and play studios or a film center- with multiple use options. It was also suggested that another way of looking at successful solutions to creating work, would be to look at production support and new opportunities for growth that dissolves jurisdictional barriers- that by not thinking along divisions between states, more could be accomplished. At the same time, there was some excitement about the idea of creating a MADE IN DC campaign- similar to the success of MADE IN- campaigns in New York and Georgia, which could link the arts community, new media, film and video, the planning office, graphics, animators and IT talent together under one banner- one MADE IN DC identity.

Jon Gann, Director of the DC Shorts Film Festival, characterized the Roundtable meeting as “a great first meeting- a step in the right direction.”  He describes DC as “a city of creative people and what has not been happening for the past 15 years is that the film office was not listening at all to the local community. They did not reach out to the local community”. He went on to praise the current outreach. “It is nice to see the film office evolve like this. Herbert recognizes he is in a unique place to effect change. He understands that the local film/video community should receive attention and support. He is going to be all about seeking ways to support the local community. And in turn, the local community needs to be active and involved.”

John Douglas agreed, saying, “Herbert is a breath of fresh air. This was the first time we have had a meeting like this.  I am pleased to see that Herbert is focusing on the DC community like this. The attitude is very good.”  He said that in the past, the Film Office hosted a PA training that went really well because “it helped to create jobs and it helped to create a body of film people who were here in DC and ready to work on productions that may come from outside and from also here in the city.”  He hopes that such a training can be re-started.

2398630902_9823b2b590_bLiz Norton of Stone Soup, acknowledged that Herbert is coming at this from a production side. “He’s a film maker. The meeting was good. Even though we have people coming at this from different places.” Stone Soup is relatively new to DC but what she said she has discovered here is how extensive and creative the DC Film/video community really is.  “We started Stone Soup with the idea of attracting 20-30 volunteers and now we work with over 400!” She praised the efforts of the Film Office to work with all of this underground talent. “Talking on neutral ground is very good. I am very impressed with the level of professionalism in D.C.”In the end, it was agreed that it was important to determine the characteristics of the indigenous production community and further detail and define what its need are.  The prospect for meaningful collaboration and support from the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development feels very real and tangible right now.

This new effort to reach out and seek input, to encourage dialogue and share concerns is happening at the same time that the city is transitioning and growing, with thousands of new residents moving to the city each month. In fact, according to the recent Washington Post article, entitled, Washington, D.C. the New Boomtown published in May of this year, “Washington’s economy—which was never hit as hard during the recession as other major U.S. cities—is flourishing. From 2007 through 2012, the local economy expanded 7.6%, compared with the nation’s growth of 5.4%, according to economist Stephen Fuller of George Mason University. Federal procurement spending in the Washington area increased by 182% from 2000 through 2010, which has led to an influx of contractors, lawyers and consultants. Overall, the area saw a population increase of 776,280 between 2000 and 2010.”

DSC01401The questions are:  How will this phenomenal growth effect the Creative Economy? How will it affect you? Does it matter that the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development is actively looking for ways to support what you do as an industry professional? The answers are yes, of course it matters. It matters if it means that the current OMPTD $4 million budget might be spent in ways that could impact your bottom line; if it means that a film center is established at a re-purposed currently vacant property (like a school) , or an on-line directory of facilities is implemented, or subsidized access to cutting edge (and expensive) software and office space is created; or if an effort is made to create and recognize a more integrated community that is more than just film/video but which also includes gaming, IT, sound, graphic.  The answer, in part, to these questions, also depends on you- meaning it is important to stay involved with organizations like TIVA, WIFV and the Producers Guild, etc. to share your concerns and ideas and to advocate for this possible new investment and support from OMPTD that is being discussed.

Remember also:  The television/Video/Film Community is a voting community – and in the upcoming Mayoral race, I urge you to find out who is talking openly about and pledging to support the Creative Economy—because the Creative Economy is you!  I invite you to share your feedback, ideas and questions with me as the conversation continues with the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development.

Todd Clark, EMMY Award-Winning Director

Member, TIVA Board of Directors

Founder/Host, www.theDCPLACE.com (A progressive on-line video magazine about the DC Community)

Director, www.ONANONproductions.com (Documentary & Promotional Video/Gala events)

DC Film Maker of the Month   http://film.dc.gov/node/713162

Todd@theDCPLACE.com