Renton: The New Hollywood North?

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Renton Boeing plant. (Image: Jelson25, CC BY-SA 3.0)

When you want to get the attention of the Hollywood film industry, there is one thing you should know: If you build it, they will come. Since this is a story about Hollywood, I thought I should start with a cliche. But there is truth behind it. Many Hollywood TV and film productions now shoot movies in places like New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. All of these countries offer locations that are perfect stand-ins for other cities and places. As well as having a better control over COVID. That’s why Hollywood likes them. But honestly, I think, if given the opportunity, Hollywood might like Seattle a little more. 

A couple of years ago, I was at the Seattle Film Summit with my father. We were in a conference room at the Hyatt Regency Lake Washington in Renton waiting for a panel discussion to begin when I looked out the window at the giant hangers of the Boeing assembly plant and thought, “Wow, that looks just like a movie studio.” 

I’m not going to go into what I think about the fact that Boeing has been moving its airplane assembly jobs to right-to-work states in the Southeast where labor is cheap and union organizing is considered a dangerous form of communist agitating. But I will say that it would be a shame if someone didn’t try to turn these now-empty buildings into the kind of places that would attract commercial film production to Seattle. Have you ever been inside any of them? They’re huge. They were built to house commercial airplanes. You know what else they could house? The set for the next series of endless superhero movies.

Some of the assembly buildings were damaged during the 2001 Nisqually earthquake and were never used again. When the company stopped making 757’s in 2004, even more of them became vacant. All in all, the Renton facility contains about 1.1 million square feet of enclosed but wide-open spaces. In other words, perfect places for making movies and television. Real estate insiders expect that the land they’re sitting on now will be sold to developers and that most of those big buildings will be torn down and replaced by lakefront residences, shopping centers, hotels… you name it. And what a shame that would be. 

Seattle used to be a city where Hollywood did a lot of filming, but that’s not the case anymore. There are two reasons for this: wimpy financial incentives, and limited infrastructure, especially when compared to Vancouver, BC where the film business is a substantial industry.

When a producer or director is thinking about where to shoot a film, she is looking for two things: financial incentives and studio infrastructure. Incentives are tax benefits and other perks that State film commissions offer to encourage Hollywood to pick their backyard as a movie location. Right now, Washington State will give a 30% tax break for a movie project and a 35% for TV series (with six or more episodes), plus an additional 15% tax break if they employ local labor. In return, the producers pledge to spend a minimum of $500,000 for a movie production and $300,000 for a TV series that is shot here. Everybody wins. 

For example let’s say there is a director who has to shoot their movie in Walla Walla because it’s the perfect location for a winery rom-com, Full Bodied, starring Julia Roberts and Pedro Pascal. The producer develops a budget, and the lovely people at the Washington State Film Commission give the producer the numbers for their incentives (see above), which might also include other perks in exchange for shooting the movie here. They may even offer to help with scouting locations or help find experienced local film crews. And when the director is done with their location shooting, the director can go back to Seattle and film the rest of the script at one of the rented sound stages in Renton. 

Boom! Just like that, Full Bodied is on its way to becoming a smash hit and everyone is happy. 

But here’s the problem. Right now, those sound stages exist only in my mind. And if the incentives that Washington State offers aren’t sexy enough compared to other places, this dream could die even before it gets to the cutting-room floor. The producer of Full Bodied will push for the director to choose a location in a state that offers better incentives like Canada, Georgia, New York State, or Illinois. And then the director will feel like their vision was compromised because they had to shoot the film at some random winery in Vancouver instead of at that sexy looking one on the banks of the Walla Walla River that would have been perfect. The producer is happy because they saved a ton of money but Washington State loses out on a movie project that would have been great for the local economy and for the reputation of Walla Walla as a vacation destination. 

Film and TV productions create jobs and boost tourism. And Washington State is the ideal setting for almost any film project because we have it all: urban beauty (Sleepless in Seattle), small cities (10 Things I Hate About You), college towns (21 & Over), rural areas, prairies, wetlands, estuaries, rain forests (the Twilight movies), marine waters, lakes, wild rivers, grasslands and yes, even shrub-steppe. See! I just gave you several inspiring locations for a space thriller, a rom-com, a heist-gone-wrong thriller, or an indie with a heart of gold and some Oscar potential.

Washington State needs to offer bigger and better tax breaks for films. I mean come on, if we can carry companies like Amazon and Boeing around on the taxpayers’ backs, we can probably afford to give someone else a break. And think about how much money we’d have for movie incentives if we actually made those big guys pay a little more of their share. Speaking of Amazon, if we had more studio infrastructure to offer, maybe they would film a few more of their movies and TV series in their hometown than they do now. 

So how can we make this happen?  

The best part is the ball has already started rolling with the recent news about a new film production facility on Harbor Island that features two sound stages. This is an encouraging first step toward bringing in more locally filmed projects.

I’m a Seattle-born screenwriter now living and hustling in Los Angeles. But I love Seattle and I still set all my scripts there because, like New York and Los Angeles, Seattle itself is a character. It’s got the people, the food, the scenic splendor, and Mount Rainier painted in the background (some of the time). 

That’s why I think we should turn Boeing Field the Boeing hangars into a fully fledged film studio. I worked as a Screenwriting Fellow at Universal Pictures for a year and there’s no reason why the Boeing Renton facility couldn’t be turned into a similar facility with a little time and investment. There is already a beautiful new hotel right next door on the lakefront with gorgeous views and lavish amenities, ready to accommodate interfering film executives, demanding directors, and pampered actors. And the best part: it’s not only close to Sea-Tac Airport but it’s a short stroll from the Renton Municipal Airport. Private jet? No problem! Park it behind your trailer if you want.

One of the reasons Burbank, became so successful as a TV and movie hub is that it’s close enough to LA but far enough away from the congestion, traffic, and noise. It even has its own airport named after Bob Hope. And isn’t Renton really Seattle’s Burbank? I’m telling you; Boeing Field hangars could be our new Field of Dreams. 

Now, if any billionaire reads this and wants to take my idea and bring it to life, feel free to give me a call. As they say in Hollywood, stick with me kid, we’re going places.

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Rose McAleese was born in Seattle, graduated from Garfield High School, and is now a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Rose: We also have a vacant airplane hanger at Magnuson Park. It’s falling apart and needs someone to invest and refurbish it, but I know it, too, could work as a sound stage. There have been any number of proposals for that property, including an archery range, but never any real money to do the repair. It probably wouldn’t rival the Renton facility, but it’s an alternative.

  2. I love this creative idea. I hope a billionaire really does read this post and bring the sound stages to life! Everett is also an option with Boeing’s abdication of assembly buildings there.

    As an aside, Boeing Field is the King County Airport, not the Renton Factory. They are separate entities.

  3. There is no more Washington Film Commission. There is Washington Filmworks, which oversees our state’s production incentive, as well as locations, and permits throughout Washington State. Washington Filmworks is now the film commission. Aside from this correction, I love your article Rose.

    • Thank you Rik for you comment! I did refence Harbor Island Studios in the article. It’s really exciting and a great start.

  4. I love your thinking, Rose. As a tireless supporter of film in our state, I can say that the Harbor Island stage is an amazing start to the rebirth of our standing as a sought-after location for productions, large and small. As a consultant in the audio industry, I can say that the Boeing plant being near the SeaTac airport has its challenges, but this type of idea-making is good for our industry and it’s possible that someday that may just work out. Keep pounding out those ideas! -pb

  5. Any sound stage in Renton is likely to be very noisy for some years to come. According to Boeing, there were 5263 orders for the 737 Max when it was grounded, and approximately 1000 were cancelled. Delta says it currently has 349 orders and 270 options through 2031.
    United recently added 25 new orders. And there are others.

    Of course, customer acceptance is another thing entirely. Who knows what will happen to that plane? Or any currently produced Boeing model? You got your Fear of Flying, You got your Fear of Flying a 737 Max, and you got your Fear of Catching Covid while Fearful of Flying a 737 Max. I’m holding off for a while.

  6. There’s been a slight confusion about Renton airport and Boeing Field. The article is exploring the idea about the status of the Boeing Hangars. Corrections have been made. Thank you.

  7. Rose, as someone who has worked in the Washington film industry for the past 45 years, let me bring some reality to your views.
    First, as far as I know, Boeing is using all of their space at Renton Airport and has no plans to close any of the “hanger” space at Renton. They are selling some adjacent properties, which are either vacant land or office space.
    Second, a sound stage in close proximity to an active airport and an active aircraft manufacturing facility can be quite problematic. Not that the sound issues can’t be solved, but solving them could easily cost more than building from the ground up at another (ie naturally quieter) location.
    Third, this notion that a) if you build it they will come, combined with b) Washington has great locations that filmmakers want simply doesn’t work today. In the 1980’s and 1990’s and even into the beginning of the 2000’s, maybe, but not today. Today it is nearly 100% driven by how much incentive a state or province or country will provide. “Seattle” locations are regularly shot in Vancouver, Atlanta and Los Angles.
    “Firefly Lane” is set 100% in Seattle/Tacoma and, except for the aerials, is shot 100% in Vancouver.
    The “Twilight” series was shot first in Portland and then in Vancouver.
    Fourth, why would a producer shoot in the Seattle area when Vancouver has dozens of studios, multiple equipment providers and hundreds (if not thousands) of qualified crewpersons. Once upon a time, back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Washington was somewhat competitive with British Columbia for production, but today BC wins hands down because of the reasons cited above, plus the exchange rate (not what it once was but still favorable) and crew costs.
    Trust me, after 45 years of watching and participating in production here in Seattle, I’d like nothing better than to see a rebirth of production here, but it is going to be a really hard, if not impossible road for all of the reasons noted above.

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