Are there movies in Valley's future?
These ambitious plans will take time to develop, one commissioner says.
By DEBORA SHAULIS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Most folks simply call Richard Ouzounian, the founder of Western Reserve Film Commission, "Oz."
Before he moved to Boardman several years ago, Ouzounian ran a production company that produced films and videos in the White House. Now he's made it his job to promote the tri-county area to all filmmakers.
Ouzounian believes this area is on the verge of a $100 million industry.
"There are people who don't believe it can be done, and I just don't agree with that," he said.
Ouzounian isn't afraid to ask for money, whether it's $40 million in federal funds to build sound stages or $150,000 from Mahoning County Convention & amp; Visitors Bureau to keep his office, and himself, going.
For some people, Ouzounian's actions invoke memories of the title character in the classic movie "The Wizard of Oz" -- the seemingly all-knowing, all-powerful leader who's just a guy behind a green curtain.
In Ouzounian's case, that curtain is made of money.
So far, Ouzounian has the backing of Mahoning County commissioners, who make up three-fourths of the CVB's interim board. The CVB dipped into its share of the county lodging tax to give the film commission $65,000 last year. It hasn't acted yet on Ouzounian's 2006 request for $150,000.
Commissioner David Ludt said Ouzounian spent money as he said he would in his 2005 budget proposal.
Commissioner John McNally IV is willing to give Ouzounian time to get the film commission established. Ouzounian has "ambitious ideas," McNally said. "I don't think this is a six-month project. I don't think this is a one-year project."
McNally testified in January in support of state Senate Bill 155, which would provide tax credits to people who invest in film production in Ohio. State Sen. Marc Dann of Liberty, D-32nd, is co-sponsoring the bill. Twenty-four other states have similar legislation in an effort to lure productions away from Hollywood, McNally said.
The film commission should be funded by the bed tax, which by state law can be used only to promote tourism, and not by the county's general fund, McNally said.
Anthony Traficanti, president of the board of commissioners, said Ouzounian has been passionate about filmmaking's benefits to the local economy.
"I didn't want to turn a blind eye to an industry I didn't know much about," Traficanti said.
Economic impact on Valley
Ouzounian has estimated the economic impact of all local film projects in 2005 at $3 million. Filmmakers spent money on hotel rooms, rental cars, food, fuel and wages for local people who were hired on the sets; that money, in turn, was spent locally, he said.
The $3 million includes the production of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which filmed in Boardman last October, he noted. Ouzounian doesn't take credit for bringing "Extreme Makeover" here, but he does claim responsibility for five independent films that were shot locally.
Ouzounian often says that the local infrastructure is desirable to filmmakers. He cites the underused Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, abandoned buildings and the area's mix of urban and rural settings as movie-friendly. It's just a matter of marketing, he said.
Ouzounian isn't looking only to the CVB for support.
A lease agreement between the film commission and the city of Youngstown is still being developed, but Ouzounian has proposed that the film commission use office space on the seventh floor of the former Phar-Mor Center downtown rent-free for the first two years.
That location also is where Ouzounian wants to create a film school to train people for jobs in the film industry, he said.
Ouzounian said he had an informal conversation last October with U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, about pursuing $40 million in federal funding to build four 18,000-square-foot sound stages to lure big film productions here.
The sound stages would be in addition to an incentive package that Ouzonian is developing. The package also includes free use of the film commission's office space, discounts on hotel rooms for production crews and on-site film production equipment, which the commission would need to buy at an approximate cost of $3 million, he said.
"Are we going to let these numbers scare us away from doing this? They're not going to scare me away," Ouzounian said.
Ouzounian's $150,000 request is for salaries, marketing and attending trade shows. The CVB board won't act before it resolves legal issues with its predecessor, Youngstown/Mahoning County Convention & amp; Visitors Bureau.
Atty. David L. Engler, who represents the old CVB that previous county commissioners stopped funding in 2003, sent a letter Thursday to current commissioners to request public records about the film commission's funding and details of its economic impact.
Billie Jo Zimmerman, executive director of the old board, called Youngstown/Mahoning County CVB, questions how the film commission is benefiting the county. It's her understanding that some film crews flew into Pittsburgh, rented vehicles there and received deep discounts on local hotel rooms. "How is that generating more than what we're doing?" she asked.
"Nobody's knocking the film commission by any means," Zimmerman said, but "We're marketing to the masses. He's marketing to one film."
Jeff Maurer, general manager of Red Roof Inn in Boardman and the fourth member of the CVB's interim board, said Ouzounian should find a private donor for the film commission and ask the CVB to provide matching funds.
Maurer also says Ouzounian's desired salary far exceeds what most hotel managers earn. Ouzounian's salary was $40,000 last year, and he has said he'd like his salary to be comparable to his peers who make $60,000 to $80,000 annually.
"There's much better ways to use the money than to support a starting film commission," Maurer said.
Unlike the Wizard of Oz, who was leader of the Emerald City, Ouzounian doesn't have free rein, commissioners said.
Film commission expenditures should be cleared through the county auditor's office, Ludt said. Traficanti believes that's already happening.
Commissioners also have asked the county prosecutor's office for an opinion on the extent of its control of the film commission and whether Ouzounian should be a county employee, Traficanti said.