Behind the $5 Million Grant to Transform Baltimore into a Filmmaking Mecca

When we think of exciting hubs of American filmmaking, we inevitably think of Southern California and New York City. But... Baltimore?

That could change, though, thanks to a whopping $5 million Stavros Niarchos Foundation grant to John Hopkins University. In fact, the grant to the university is more than just a gift to boost filmmaking studies. It's also a fascinating example of various community organizations, both private and public, using the medium of film and theater restoration as drivers of economic redevelopment.

We love these stories, because they combine two burning issues in American life: The drive to revive cities and the quest to ensure a robust arts sector. And nearly every week, we see another example of how funders are zeroing on this nexus through ambitious grantmaking. In this case, the funder is a Greek foundation built on shipping wealth and based in Athens, one of the first great cities in history to combined urban vitality with a flourishing arts scene. 

Let's start with the basics. The gift goes to the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Maryland Film Festival to "to transform Baltimore's historic Parkway Theater into a center for the study, production, and exhibition of film." The transformation will take the form of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Film Center, which will be a cinema showplace with three screens, 600 seats, and live performance space.

It's set to open in late 2016 and will act as an "anchor institution" in Baltimore's Station North Neighborhood, catalyzing cultural and economic growth in the area.

The restoration of the theater is a classic feel-good story straight out of, well, Hollywood. It was built in 1915 and was modeled after London's West End Theater. It closed in the 1970s, but that was then. The area is reemerging as a vibrant entertainment district and neighborhood players inevitably realized a full-blown restoration was needed.

The primary player was the university, which, along with local community groups, started the $10 million Homewood Community Partners Initiative. Another important player was the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), which offers both an undergraduate program in filmmaking and, starting in 2015, a new Master of Fine Arts in Filmmaking. Both Hopkins and the MICA formed partnerships with the Maryland Film Festival, creating a kind of holy trinity of state-wide film organizations.

That was all the foundation needed to see. The new center will serve all involved parties, particularly the festival, which will use the space to bring films and filmmakers to the city, all while, once again, driving the redevelopment of the neighborhood. If that's not enough, the foundation and its partners have even grander designs: Using the space to market Baltimore as a leading location for film and TV production.

Related - IP's Guide to Film Funding

We recently looked at how Sundance is expanding its filmmaker labs to establish a presence in cities like Miami, Philadelphia, St. Paul, and Charlotte, further underscoring a slow but steady drift away from the traditional movie-making nexuses of LA and New York.

Thanks to the huge gift from Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Baltimore can now add its name to that ever-growing list.