Recent projects illustrate Columbus film scene’s potential for growth

  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
    Local filmmakers Alonzo & Aqua Jones of SKRuLuz Entertainment pose with their nephew Al Battle in their home on the East Side of Columbus.
  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
    Christopher Kay, local photographer and filmmaker in Old Machine Studios in Italian Village.
  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
    Local artists and filmmakers Dan Gerdeman, Stephanie Rond and Andrew Ina pose in Franklinton.
  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
    Local filmmaker Jason Tostevin poses at the Gateway Film Center.
From the June 19, 2014 edition

Filmmaking in Columbus is a slowly growing independent scene that hasn’t received as much attention as its arts or music counterparts, but recent advancements show potential.

More projects are being made on a local level, and that expansion is a combination of new filmmakers entering the field and more experienced ones continuing to make films. Another sign of Columbus’ potential: Outsiders are filming here, as evidenced by Glacier Films having just wrapped shooting on “The Tank” last month in collaboration with the recently launched Big River Studios in Granville.

Trying to pin down what stage of development the local filmmaking scene is in is difficult, but it’s best described as being in the early stages. That could evolve into something more significant in the (possibly near) future, but a self-sustaining industry doesn’t exist yet.

Alive spoke with a handful of local filmmakers and those involved in the industry about the budding activity. Their recent projects speak to the many different ways films are being made at a local level — from million-dollar indies to all-volunteer collaborations.

A big development recently is the aforementioned Big River Studios, a full-service production company designed to create and support projects (everything from feature films to commercials) in Central Ohio. Co-founded by Leonard Hartman and Tove Christensen (co-founder of Glacier Films and brother to actor Hayden Christensen), Big River happened in Central Ohio because of Hartman’s ties to both the Buckeye State and Hollywood.

After graduating from Ohio State, where he was an Academic All-American for the football team, Hartman earned his MFA in film and screenwriting from the American Film Institute and then worked for more than a decade as a writer and producer in Los Angeles. After Hartman, a northeast Ohio native, saw a trend, he thought he could return home and start a viable business.

“I started seeing production leaving Los Angeles left and right and … I thought why not Ohio? We have an aggressive tax credit,” Hartman said during a phone interview last week while in Florida. “There was a lot of money being spent, money that Ohio is missing out on because we don’t have state-of-the-art sound stages or post-production facilities.”

Hartman cited states like Louisiana and North Carolina becoming filmmaking destinations for Hollywood productions along with places as far away as Romania. The main reason these locations have thrived as filmmaking destinations outside Los Angeles is financial — for example, Ohio offers a 35-percent refundable tax credit to productions that spend a minimum of $300,000 — but also because those places offered full-service production companies, like Big River plans to become.

“We would like to expand and start being able to provide the kind of services you find at a Celtic [Media Centre] in Louisiana or MediPro in Romania,” Hartman said.

The former, for instance, has worked on television series, independent films and big budget movies like “Battleship” and the “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” movies.

Attracting one production can make the industry look at Columbus. Hartman said his phone hasn’t stopped ringing and his email inbox is filled with people inquiring about working with Big River since “The Tank” wrapped. Thomas McClure, executive director of the Greater Columbus Film Commission, a non-profit promoting Columbus as a filming destination and offering resources and support for local and visiting productions, said “The Tank” and Glacier Film’s local involvement is impactful.

“With someone like Glacier Films coming in, and with a slate of films — we’re hoping to start the next one in August. When [that happens] it does put Columbus on the map with filmmakers,” McClure said during an interview in the Short North last week.

While Big River is the splashiest occurrence, Columbus-based film projects are also a factor. The number of aspiring and independent filmmakers has grown, mostly out of DIY-type efforts and is producing everything from shorts and documentaries to feature-length movies.

Jason Tostevin founded Hands Off Productions, and has been making short films for the last five years using volunteer casts and crews. The 2013 horror comedy “’Til Death” received 63 festival selections, including 14 wins. “’Til Death” will make its Los Angeles premiere at Days of the Dead in July and a distribution deal has been signed, a “rare fish for a short” as Tostevin calls it. He attributes the film’s success to its audience appeal.

“It got to a point that people called me to ask if they can show it. Our goal is always for the audience. That’s really my focus [and] generally people have gotten a kick out it,” Tostevin said during an interview at the Gateway Film Center, which hosts the monthly Show Us Your Shorts screening for local filmmakers to exhibit their work. “If your orientation is to the audience, and your orientation is also to get better, you can make movies people will want to watch.”

Tostevin is optimistic about Columbus filmmaking, but it’s important to understand our role, he said.

“We’re all on the periphery. I don’t have any delusions. There are two approaches — get into the system or make your own system,” Tostevin said. “We’re just playing at a different scale, and it’s important to acknowledge that [because] it could get really discouraging if you’re comparing yourself to what’s playing in [the theaters].”

Not having the resources and budgets of studio blockbusters and even successful independent films means Columbus filmmakers are working with what’s available. Two documentary projects — last year’s “Of By For” from Old Machine and the in-progress “Tiny Out Loud” from local artists/filmmakers Andrew Ina, Dan Gerdeman and Stephanie Rond — are examples of humble beginnings turning in to comprehensive finished products.

“Of By For” began with director Christopher Kay and producer Chad Monnin traveling across the country to gauge the average American’s outlook on the current political climate. The two were so surprised the country was more disenfranchised than divided, they had to learn more. Interviews with Dan Rather, Ralph Nader, Newt Gingrich and many other political experts presented an unsettling and intellectually eye-opening look at our immensely flawed political system. “Of By For” has since reached audiences across the States and even internationally.

“We got [distribution] and you can buy DVDs, Blu-ray’s and it’s on iTunes, and hopefully it’ll be on Netflix soon,” Kay said during an interview at his offices. “Nobody was trying to get rich on it all … but it’s had a great reception. It’s hard to get the word out about anything, especially when you’re relatively unknown … but it’s actually screened in several countries [Australia, which once had the highest iTunes sales, Sweden and a number in South America].”

“Tiny Out Loud” originated as an idea Stephanie Rond had about examining the creative community. She hooked up with experienced filmmakers (and local visual artists) Andrew Ina and Dan Gerdeman.

“The film is the icing on the cake to explaining what the similarities are between [my] street work and the miniature galleries. The whole idea is it’s the entire community making this film, that ‘my character’ is a metaphor for us all as creatives. And that they’re all discussing the same thing, such as scale, gender, accessibility, product vs. non-product and community. And I just want to add — there’s puppets!” Rond said during an interview with Ina and Gerdeman last week at Franklinton’s Rehab Tavern.

As the three were kicking around ideas for “Tiny Out Loud,” they decided to start a Kickstarter campaign. The result was completely unexpected.

“That’s really important because a lot of what we did was a result of the Kickstarter,” Ina said. “We were just kicking around some humble ideas, and thought if we get some funding maybe we can grow our ideas more. We got this overwhelming response and support, mostly from our community, and almost doubled what we were [looking for].”

“Tiny Out Loud” transformed into a feature-length doc, like “Of By For,” filmed in New York City last winter and will hit the festival circuit thanks to the additional funding. It will screen in Columbus at the Fort Hayes Shot Tower Gallery on Sept. 5.

Besides documentaries, feature-length fictional films are being produced using exclusively local volunteer talent and crew. Husband and wife Alonzo and Aqua Jones lived and worked in the Los Angeles film industry for years, and moved back to Columbus just over a year ago to be closer to their grandchild. In that time, the couple has produced two feature length films, “Doc Crow: The Legend of Johnny Two Strings,” about a fictional blues legend presented in a documentary format, and the crime drama “Contrast,” which will hold a special screening at the Drexel Thursday, June 19.

“We’re trying to work with as many people here in town because … everybody here could benefit from that. It’s not just about one project. It’s about building future relationships for the next projects,” Alonzo Jones said during an interview at his home with wife Aqua and “Contrast” co-star Al Battle.

The Jones’ production company SKRuLuZ (pronounced “screw loose”) Ent. has a number of future projects in the tank, spanning a multitude of genres, and is looking to connect with as much of Columbus’ talent as possible.

“We’ve got a stockpile of things … and we’re always looking to help people here for whatever they want to do in film,” Jones said referring to his open-door approach. “We’re going back to what we wanted to do, getting people involved in the experience and trying something new. It’s working.”

Another example of finding a cast and crew that’s willing to devote their time and energy for a film project is “I’m Not Patrick” by Two Dollar Radio, a local small press book publishing company that’s expanding to film. For “I’m Not Patrick” the cast was fashioned not from Columbus’ acting community, but mainly friends, neighbors and acquaintances.

“It was a learning experience for all of us. When we first got everyone together, they were a little suspicious. ‘Why do you think I can do this?’ Then we rehearsed for six weeks and you could see everyone’s confidence growing,” said Two Dollar Radio co-founder Eric Obenauf.

“I’m Not Patrick” was somewhat of a test, and Two Dollar Radio will begin a more expansive film project later this summer in “The Removals,” which will be co-directed by two authors the company publishes. Obenauf said he hopes to have “I’m Not Patrick” completed in time to submit to Sundance Film Festival and “The Removals” by the end of 2014.

All of the interviewees were excited about Columbus’ potential future in filmmaking, but were also unsure about it. Some of the uncertainties stem from unreliable funding for independent local film projects, and the need for more venues screening local films. The Gateway and Drexel Theatre screen locally produced films, but as Ina said, “You can’t have enough venues … but the beauty of it is it’s starting to happen.”

While all agreed there are more projects happening, they also all felt the projects need to be more consistent for filmmaking to sustain a foothold in Columbus. If there were more opportunities for full-time, paid employment, talent would be more apt to stay in Columbus for film projects.

“If we can do that, it gives us real boots on the ground and we can start putting a workforce together that allows us to [help] that creative class that everybody talks about but we really don’t foster,” Hartman said.