Hollywood in the Heartland

Steph Scupham opens the doors to a new Kansas City Film Office. Will Hollywood answer?

   The view from the “Visit KC” offices (a not-for-profit corporation to promote KC as an attractive destination for business and travel) is impressive. 

   From 22 stories up, the two states and five counties that make up the metro area can be surveyed from the newly re-born Kansas City Film Office. Budget crunches killed the office in 2002. And although a volunteer committee did their best to take up the slack, countless movie and TV production companies bypassed the city as a film location in favor of more film-friendly (economically and otherwise) destinations.

   Thankfully, Mayor Sly James saw production as an important component to the growing art and media culture in metropolitan Kansas City. Encouraged by a vocal production community, he reinstated the office in October 2014.

   The holder of that office, Steph Scupham, enters with a warm smile, showing no sign of fatigue after a third day of meet-and-greets. As the film and new media manager, she’s making it her mission to connect with as many members of the image-making community as possible. There’s clearly no settling into the job. She has hit the ground running.

   Scupham seems perfectly suited for the task. While attending high school in St. Louis, she discovered the performing arts.

   “It was lifesaving,” she says. “That’s why it became so important to me. Theater brought me out of my shell.”

   She received a voice scholarship to college for her operatic voice but found that performing wasn’t her true calling.

   “What I really wanted to do was help tell stories,” she says.

   So Scupham pursued a film emphasis at the University of Kansas, becoming involved with KU Filmworks, a campus club promoting student-produced videos and films. She acquired assistant camera skills and learned about live audio mixing, taking production assistant jobs on films like Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil.” 

   “That was such an important opportunity,” she says. “I was willing to work for free just to be a part of it and wound up in Pattonsburg, Mo., working with extras. It became an experience that felt even bigger than the movie. I saw how everyone had a role, saw how the whole machine worked smoothly. And the extras were incredible, spending days in wool clothing, sitting for hours in the hot summer sun, committed to the job.”

   “Actors are very brave people; I really respect what they do and there are so many talented actors here,” adds Scupham.

   More jobs followed, including producing a local television show, directing for advertising and digital media agencies like Platform and  Barnstorming, and a stint at  Exposure Inc. Model and Talent — all roads leading to her newly minted position at the Kansas City Film Office.

   It’s easy to get caught up in Scupham’s enthusiasm for her new job.

   “I’m here to make connections for people, whether on small independent films or large productions,” she says. “There’s great value in both to our city. What this office can do is make sure there are channels to the permit office, for example, or other municipalities and departments within local government.”

   But supporting local production isn’t her only job. The other aspect is luring major, national film projects to town.

“The challenge here is the fact that our state doesn’t have the big tax incentives other states do,” she says. 

   Kansas City lost “The Good Lie,” the Reese Witherspoon vehicle about relocated Sudanese war orphans, set in Kansas, to Georgia because that state offers significant incentives to filmmakers. In fact, filmmakers spent more than $900 million in Georgia in 2013.

   Last year, the best-selling thriller penned by Kansas City native Gillian Flynn, “Gone Girl,” was adapted into a movie starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. The much-hyped movie filmed in Cape Girardeau and used the last of the small tax credit Missouri had to offer.

   Scupham says that in less than two months an estimated $7 million dollars was spent in Cape Girardeau.

   “That’s money that stays in the economy,” she says. “The local supermarket Schnucks made $10,000 from just snacks, sodas and water for the crew. The filmmakers also built a restaurant set that became a real working restaurant after they left.” 

   The local economy of Cape Girardeau benefitted significantly from the film crew’s food, housing, building materials and production labor spending.

   While the Missouri legislature waits to reconvene, Scupham has been working with partners in economic development to study data from other states where moviemaking is incentivized. It is her hope that lawmakers will be encouraged to craft legislation that will benefit both local filmmakers and lure larger, national film companies to town. The notion that businesses must be permanent, physical spaces before they deserve tax incentives remains a stumbling block to some legislators.  

   However, as Scupham points out, “Technology is showing us every day that our work spaces aren’t within walls. Not anymore.”

   She’s optimistic that Kansas City will soon have its place in the limelight as a major production location and creative hub.  

   "We constantly exceed expectations in terms of the vast variety of locations, from the industrial West Bottoms to mid-century suburbia, upscale mansions, contemporary suburbs, urban locations and historic architecture,” she says. “We're also only a half hour away from rural landscapes, farms, forests and natural beauty. The city has equipment, gear, post houses, visual effects companies and we're also one of the top digital cities in America. And then there are the friendly people. Everyone mentions that."

   Scupham adds, “It’s a great time for Kansas City. It’s as if we have collectively come together and said ‘we’re ready to be seen.’” 

   And not only that, but seen on a big screen. Kansas City is ready for its close-up.