J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Cut! Capitol-security issues crimp moviemakers' style

Architect of the Capitol bans commercial filmmaking on all of his grounds.

When Crystal Palmer became director of the Washington, D.C., Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, it was a position no one gave much attention. But 20 years later, as the architect of the Capitol considers whether to allow film crews to feature any shots of the Capitol building, Palmer has come into the spotlight.

December’s omnibus bill funding the government turned the jurisdiction of Union Square -- the open area with a reflecting pool just west of the Capitol -- from the National Park Service to the architect of the Capitol, who has banned commercial filmmaking on all of his grounds.

Movie producers feared the change would mean losing the last area open to them for filming with the Capitol in the background. But last month, the architect’s office announced that Union Square, a favorite location for filmmakers with its majestic Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, will remain open to commercial cameras, at least until a more formal policy is developed this spring.

The announcement provided some relief for Hollywood and D.C.’s Palmer, but both are still struggling to court free-spending moviemakers who have been increasingly frustrated about restrictions on filming around the Capitol since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

What threatens the security of the Capitol is the very thing that makes moviemaking around it profitable for the District: movie crews. Shouting, hustling, standing still, eating, buying -- movie crews interrupt the normal flow on the Hill while generating revenue for the area. Palmer’s office estimates that a film crew spends as much as $500,000 a day on location, and that commercial filming in Washington brought more than $20 million into the city last year.

Palmer’s job is to bring this profitable hubbub to the local economy, but her hands are tied when Congress tells the cameras where to turn. She said that the omnibus’s new limits on filming in Union Square came as a complete shock.

“I don’t know what caused it,” Palmer said, “I don’t know if there’s some new threat. All you know is what you’re told. You don’t know the backstory.”

Assisted by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., Palmer initiated a series of meetings with Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers that led to his change of heart at the end of January. Palmer immediately sent an e-mail to film and television industry members: “We are pleased to report that the Mr. Ayers understands and appreciates the art form of film and wants to find a viable solution that works for all parties concerned.”

Norton also praised the decision to continue allowing filming. “The vista of the U.S. Capitol is among America’s most iconic,” she said in a statement. “Limiting commercial films and photography, an important vehicle for telling the nation’s story, does an unintended disservice.

“Most of the people of the world know us and revere our system of government largely through commercial photography and films of the Capitol, which symbolizes our democracy at work. The nation can only gain by putting our best face forward.”

Palmer came to the city’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development in the late 1980s as an undergraduate majoring in TV and film at American University, expecting to soak up as much movie experience she could in Washington before heading off to California. The previous director had followed that path, leaving Palmer as director with only three years of experience.

Back then, the local film industry was just emerging. Many Washington-based scenes were shot inside Hollywood studios. Palmer said that her colleagues called Washington “Docuwood” in those days because only makers of documentaries came to shoot in the nation’s capital.

What kept Palmer in D.C. during those early years was not her belief in an emerging local film industry but her own love story. In 1991, Palmer had a job offer in California, but her new husband, Harold Brazil, was running for the D.C. City Council. Convinced he would not win the seat, she went so far as to find them a new West Coast home. But, to Palmer’s surprise, Brazil won and served until 2005.

Over that time, Palmer has seen D.C.’s film and television industry through booms and busts, and found federal security enforcement to be a major factor in her ability to bring producers to the District. President Reagan, a former Hollywood man himself, opened up the White House to set researchers, Palmer recalled, and allowed them to take pictures and notes for scenes they would need to recreate.

And the policy stayed largely the same in the 1990s, paving the way for films and shows like The American President and West Wing. All the while Palmer was creating the rule book for on-location filming. If a crew filmed in a neighborhood, the residents had to be informed 72 hours in advance and the producers had to pay for D.C. police to secure the area.

But after Sept. 11, a much stricter set of federal rules were handed down to the film office that Palmer sums up with one word: paperwork. Many crews grew frustrated with the time it took to get approval for entrance into government buildings; some workers were even denied access for reasons such as bad taxes and late child-support payments.

And a bigger problem soon followed: Technology that allowed studios to recreate images of Washington like never before. Palmer blames technology more than post-Sept. 11 security for the drop in D.C.’s movie business.

“People think because we’re in D.C., our phones are ringing off the hook,” Palmer said, referring to calls from production companies. “That’s not true. Crews are now able to come shoot plate [background] shots and film the rest elsewhere.”

With all the security restrictions, technology enhancements, and the fact that tax incentives for moviemakers in D.C. are less than what is offered by many other cities, Palmer said she focuses on customer service to keep the producers coming. The relationships that she builds with production companies and with those making decisions about filming around the Capitol are the key.