Filmmaking is thriving in Lancaster County

May 1, 2021 GMT
1 of 2
A film crew works on a scene for for the action-thriller called "Locked In" along West Mifflin Street on Dec. 12, 2019, in Lancaster, Pa. (Ty Lohr/LNP/LancasterOnline via AP)
1 of 2
A film crew works on a scene for for the action-thriller called "Locked In" along West Mifflin Street on Dec. 12, 2019, in Lancaster, Pa. (Ty Lohr/LNP/LancasterOnline via AP)

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — Evan Scudner needed to make it rain on a cloudless summer day.

And not just make it rain, but create a hurricanelike torrential downpour. So he did what any other clever film production veteran would do: He drew water from a nearby fire hydrant through three rain heads attached to a 55-foot-tall boom arm and coupled it with a wind machine with 7-foot propellers and an airplane engine, used otherwise for hurricane testing.

“In some cases, it was a little too strong because it cleared all the debris that was supposed to be on the street,” Scudner says with a laugh.

The violent storm was created in the streets of Reading for the recently released film “Night of the Sicario,” helmed in part by a number of Lancaster County production companies, including Scudner’s Triode Media Group.

The film was shot back-to-back in 2019 with another action thriller, “Locked In,” which will follow “Night of the Sicario” onto the Paramount+ streaming service on May 7. The former was directed by Carlos V. Gutierrez and stars Mena Suvari, while the latter was directed by Joth Riggs and stars Natasha Henstridge.

Though post-production was affected by conditions brought on by COVID-19, both films showcase the local area and the kinship between many of the film production studios in and around Lancaster County.

“I and others in this industry think Lancaster is a place where films are being made, as compared to a place where films are being shot, currently,” says Peter Scudner, Evan’s father and founder of Triode. “We were all excited that ‘Witness’ came here, but it was filmed here because of our location, right? So that’s great for our community when something like that happens, but it’s different than having a film industry that makes films here.”

“‘Night of the Sicario’ and ‘Locked In’ could have been made anywhere. They’re not made here because of the farms and scenics,” he says. “They’re made here because of the industry.”

Both films take place in and around cities, with “Locked In” specifically shooting on streets in Lancaster city. The opening scene of the film features a gunfight and was shot in the small alley behind LNP ′’s previous offices at 8 W. King St.

“That was an interesting day because we had to shut down that portion of the street, which involved both getting the police involved, but also getting the special barriers to shut down the street, which is a whole other company,” says Carley Bilindabagabo, who worked on the film as a freelance production coordinator. She now runs her own production company, Ingoma Films, with her husband, Andrew.

“You also have to make sure people aren’t calling to report gunshots which aren’t real, so businesses in the area need to be aware,” Bilindabagabo says. “It was a cold day, so we had to have an area where the cast could get warm between takes. So much goes into what will be small sections of a movie.”

Unlike the aforementioned “Witness,” these are not films coming to Lancaster specifically to mine Amish-style locales for specific plot points. Slowly but steadily, feature film work is joining the already-bountiful commercial and nonprofit videomaking industry that exists here.

In recent years, filmmakers of various specialties have been able to create in their own backyards, such as B. Harrison Smith’s recent horror feature “The Special” and Alexander Monelli’s charming documentary “Marionette Land.” Similarly, other production companies including Make/Films, Haverstick Films and several others have helped foster enough of an ecosystem in the county that the next generation of filmmakers and production staff won’t necessarily have to look west to Pittsburgh or east to Philadelphia to find work.

“We can go shoot in Philadelphia but, you know, this is our home,” says Michael Schmucker, owner of Lamphouse Films and line producer on “Night of the Sicario” and “Locked In.” “We work with the people every day that we know can put it on screen, and we want to see them thrive, too. We’re investing in our local film community in this way, but also in our commercial work.”

Though COVID-19 necessitated a release delay for both films, Schmucker doesn’t see that as a full negative.

“Weirdly, it’s a better climate for independent film right now,” Schmucker says. “There’s an increased appetite for content on streaming platforms because all the big-budget theatrical releases are on hold or delayed for the most part. The chances of these films getting picked up by someone like Saban Films and Paramount are a little better because of the global climate.

“On one hand we were bummed to see such a delay of well over a year, but I think it probably helped both films at the end of the day,” Schmucker says.

Tax credit role

If it all came down to Lancaster’s scenic views, feature film production in the area might not be as noteworthy as it is currently.

The Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit, which is used to entice productions to the Commonwealth, is currently at 25% for eligible productions, with a total fund of $70 million that all productions pool from.

For example, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development, “Locked In” received nearly $180,000 while “Night of the Sicario” received roughly $192,000 of its budget back.

While the percentage rate is attractive and allows an extra 5% for productions filmed at production studios such as Triode’s on Water Street, Pennsylvania’s monetary cap is dwarfed by popular filming locations such as California ($330 million) and Georgia ($533 million).

In March, the bipartisan duo of state Sens. Jay Costa and Camera Bartolotta introduced a bill that would raise the cap to $125 million, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“The whole point of a tax incentive like this for a state is to build up enough of an industry where resources can become established,” Schmucker says. “You’ve seen this in Georgia. They made a really incredible tax incentive program with a much higher cap, so many more productions were able to come through and invest in more permanent resources.”

Andrew Bilindabagabo builds upon this point.

“As important as it could be to increase that number, perhaps a more crucial component is to allocate specific portions of that fund toward film budgets on different levels,” Andrew says. “The reality is, if you have $70 million in the state of Pennsylvania to go toward tax incentives in the form of rebates or whatever to feature film productions, it doesn’t help if M. Night Shyamalan gets a movie that is $150 million, that eats up the whole budget.

“Of course, M. Night Shyamalan coming to the state obviously helps, but also that production on a small budget needs to have a chance, and that only happens if you get that portion specifically allocated toward other things,” he says. “Also, think about minorities who don’t have access to these kinds of things. One of the things is an information gap — do people even know that these opportunities even exist? There has to be a way to facilitate and help people that are growing up and not even knowing these opportunities exist.”

Ingoma Films, which the Bilindabagabos formed in June of 2020, serves as a sort of experiment within the filmmaking ecosystem here. Essentially designed to force collaboration, Ingoma outsources years of production expertise to smaller productions that don’t have the budget to hire in-house. Like many other Lancaster production companies, Ingoma’s focus is primarily in directing commercial and nonprofit work, albeit with a focus on refugee populations. Andrew’s own experience being born in Rwanda has influenced the company’s direction.

“This is no joke, I grew up watching Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, not understanding a lick of English, and I was dreaming of becoming a filmmaker,” Andrew explains. “A long, circuitous way through that, and now I’m a filmmaker living in Lancaster, working on feature projects like ‘Locked In,’ and that is better than the Jean-Claude Van Damme movies I was watching!

“In some ways, I’m living that American dream, which is wonderful, but also, in a very real sense, I’m an exception to the rule, in the sense that there’s not enough people of color, or women or marginalized groups becoming that success story,” Andrew says.

As a former freelancer on film sets herself, Carley says many productions rely on local freelancers who generally work on several projects in a row.

“Word of mouth moves quick,” Carley says. “All of us production companies, we work with the same freelancers, we all know who the good ones are and the ones who maybe didn’t show up to set are.

“We try to pass on good people we’ve worked with,” she says. “Once you break into the community, you’re going to get lots of work.”

While COVID-19 affected the post-production of these films, it has also affected the pre-production of another. The third film listed as approved for a 2019 Pennsylvania tax credit in this area, currently titled “Brave the Dark,” was set to begin filming in 2020 but was pushed back. Slated to star “Chernobyl” and “Mad Men” actor Jared Harris, the film is about Lancaster County teacher Stan Deen, who died in 2016.

Schmucker says that he anticipates the film to begin production no later than the summer of 2022. Beyond that, there are no other features currently on the horizon to be shot in Lancaster County as of yet, but with further word of mouth on the backs of these two new films and potential changes in the film tax credit, that could change quickly.

“I think, with the economy picking up, we’re going to see a lot of very interesting productions in the next year, two years,” Evan Scudner says. “I’m determined to make that happen.”

Evan’s father, Peter, sees Triode as one of many companies in the area to continue the region’s long and rich history in the arts.

“As our world becomes more digital and things are more delivered in the streaming world, it’s important for us to have an industry to participate in that,” he says. “If you think about it, for centuries, we were known for printing and the graphic arts, but as print goes to digital, and digital to video, those jobs are going somewhere. I personally would like to see more of those jobs stay here in Lancaster.”