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Lincoln Biopic: Spielberg Film Brings Local Opportunities

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Baristas at LIFT coffeeshop in Richmond show their Abraham Lincoln spirit to mark the beginning of filming of Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln biopic. State officials spend $3.5 million to bring the filming of the movie to the capital city.
Virginia Public Radio
Baristas at LIFT coffeeshop in Richmond show their Abraham Lincoln spirit to mark the beginning of filming of Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln biopic. State officials spend $3.5 million to bring the filming of the movie to the capital city.

The lights are on and the cameras rolling in Richmond, where Steven Spielberg is shooting Lincoln, a biopic about the U.S.'s venerated 16th president. Virginia coughed up $3.5 million in cash -- plus some tax breaks -- to bring the movie to its capital city, and local residents and small business leaders are trying to make the most of the shoot.

Hollywood excitement abounds

At Lift, a coffee shop in the heart of Richmond’s art district, female baristas celebrated Steven Spielberg’s new film with "Babe Lincoln Day." Erica Kimball and her colleagues dressed in black top hats, short shorts, fishnet stockings and black beards to serve sandwiches named for the film’s stars -- Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tommy Lee Jones.

"We had a Hamuel Day Lewis, Sally Field of Greens, Joseph Gordon Lettuce," says Kimball. "We also had the Tommy Brie Jones, which was a panini with brie on it."

A block away, actors were excited as Spielberg shot on location at the historic Empire Theater, hiring a half dozen of them for small speaking parts.

"I think for Virginia and for Richmond, the movie coming to town is a big thing economically," says Phil Whiteway, the theater's manager. "It does generate part-time jobs for any number of folks and compensates nonprofit theaters like ours, so that’s a good thing.”

On the city's elegant Monument Avenue, residents were instructed to move their cars, get rid of awnings, porch furniture or anything that might detract from a 19th-century look -- and nobody complained.

"They say, 'Big deal! So you don't park on the street for a day, or you have to bring in your lawn furniture.’ The trade-off is you might get a glimpse of your house in the movie, and they think that's a fair deal," says Olympia Miola, a political reporter for the Richmond Times Dispatch, who was pulled off her beat to cover the movie.

Parts of the Virginia Capitol were off limits as shooting for the movie began on a closed set. Dreamworks did not have to pay to use the building.

The incentives, and the payoff

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has vowed to build a bigger film industry in Virginia, and he justified the payoffs to reporters in November.  "For some small, reasonable investments in the film industry, these great film producers are doing not only marvelous storytelling which will improve our democracy by telling a great American story, but also by increasing economic opportunities in Virginia and in the United States and not in some foreign country," McDonnell says. 

The industry does lobby for state assistance, and former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who now serves as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, joined the governor at a news conference to say thanks: "By insisting, even during hard times, that these credits can bring great benefit to the people of the state is, I think, a testament to his leadership," Dodd says. 

Crew members would be staying at local hotels, eating local food, and renting local equipment, Dodd pointed out, adding that producers would employ local drivers, grips, set builders, and hair and makeup artists. In all, Dodd claimed, 1,100 small businesses would get something out of the Lincoln project. Producer Kathleen Kennedy estimates 130-150 people would get jobs. Rita McClenny, who heads Virginia’s Film Office, says the number would be much higher once extras -- who make less than $80 a day -- are added to the list.

"You know, there is just no way of telling what they decide once they’re in the moment, and then they’re saying, 'okay next week we’re going to film the scene, and I think instead of having 50 people, we want to have 200 people to fill up this space,'" McClenny says.

She and McDonnell say Lincoln is a good deal for Virginia.

This report is the first in a three-part series on Stephen Spielberg's filming of Lincoln in Virginia. In Virginia Public Radio's next report, we’ll talk with Bob Tannenwald, a Harvard-trained economist, who disagrees. Tannenwald says Hollywood is taking advantage of states, and taxpayers are too star-struck to notice. The third piece takes a closer look at Virginia's incentives.

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