In the years since Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint scrambled down the presidential faces of Mount Rushmore to flee from bad guys in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic “North by Northwest,” America’s national parks have starred in scores of movies.
But the nation’s grandest parks generally have earned less than extras - and often nothing - for their unique roles. And that is remarkable, considering that Hollywood films shot in national parks, including such blockbusters as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” have grossed more than $3.2 billion.
“It’s simply disgusting,” said Roger Kennedy, who stepped down recently as director of the National Park Service, “that there isn’t a linkage made between the enormous amount of money made using parks as sets for movies and a flow of funds that would help the park service teach visitors what is really there.
“One side, the illusion side, is enormously, opulently prospering; the other, the reality side, is starved,” Kennedy said. In recent years, the Park Service’s budget has not kept pace with inflation, he said, let alone visitor increases. He said he favors a hefty new location fee for filmmakers - a percentage of proceeds earmarked for a special park service account to educate rangers and visitors to their parks.
Kathleen Milnes, vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America’s California group, rejects that idea, but she said the big Hollywood studios she represents might accept a $500-a-day fee. Currently, there is no such fee.
By comparison, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which supervises land of less public value than national parks, charges location fees of up to $700 a day. The U.S. Forest Service, run by the Agriculture Department, charges up to $3,500. Unique private sites, particularly high-maintenance gardens and mansions, charge thousands more. In fact, shooting in Yosemite is cheaper than shooting on a Los Angeles street corner. The city charges a $375-a-day fee for streets, $400 more to film in a city park. Public beaches cost up to $700.
Location fees, depending on their size, could be a bonanza for national parks. The Park Service keeps no central records of filmmaking, but one small, popular Utah park - Arches National Park - has averaged 52 filmmakers a year in the last five years. You know the place from “Thelma and Louise” and “Indiana Jones.” But it has proved popular, too, with East Indian and German filmmakers, not to mention commercials.
National Park Service officials, who raised visitor fees last summer to as much as $20 a carload, say they are barred from charging location fees to commercial filmmakers and still photographers by an agency regulation that dates from the 1950s.
“Institutional knowledge of why we did this is apparently gone,” said Park Service press aide Elaine Sevy after queries to staff lawyers.
But compensation sometimes comes, according to park officials, in the form of donations by film companies. Though park superintendents can’t officially solicit them, filmmakers say they are usually hit up and say they usually give.
“At some point in the course of negotiations for a permit, the ranger or superintendent will say, ‘While I can’t ask’ or ‘I really could use an X,’ and it’s fairly clear going in that that expectation will be met,” said Lisa Rawlins, a Warner Brothers production vice president who negotiates locations on public lands.
“Yes, it’s a donation, but I really do expect something,” said W.P. Crawford, superintendent of the San Juan, Puerto Rico, National Historic Site. He recently scored a $15,000 donation from mega-hit filmmaker Steven Spielberg. Crawford had shut down the park’s Fort El Morro for two late-April days so Spielberg could shoot a slave auction scene there for his upcoming movie “Amistad.”
But Crawford’s is not everybody’s experience. Former park superintendents at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, Death Valley in California and Arches National Park in Utah, for example, say they got nothing but more visitors from the three biggest films shot in their parks: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”