GRANVILLE, Ohio - Outside, it's a nondescript warehouse plopped among 40 acres of grassy fields. Inside, it's a movie production center. That's Big River Studios, the recently launched film and media production operation in Granville.

May 28, 2014

GRANVILLE, Ohio - Outside, it's a nondescript warehouse plopped among 40 acres of grassy fields.

Inside, it's a movie production center.

That's Big River Studios, the recently launched film and media production operation in Granville.

"We haven't done much to it yet," said Leonard Hartman, co-founder of the studio. "Ideally, we'l l soundproof the walls. But we don't need to right now - the neighborhood is so quiet. There are no planes, no trains, no trucks."

The setting is a world away from Hollywood, but the Warren native behind the studio has serious credentials and is determined to make Big River a creative force.

After playing football for Ohio State in the early 1990s, Hartman left home to study screenwriting at the American Film Institute and began writing and producing films in California. His projects have included the Civil War-era historical drama Free State of Jones, the psychological thriller Regression and an adaptation of Goosebumps, based on fellow Ohio native R.L. Stine's best-selling children's book series.

"I came back to Ohio after I had established myself as a writer in Los Angeles - my wife and I are both from here and we love it," Hartman said. "Over the last 10 or 15 years, we'd noticed productions leaving Los Angeles rapidly. They were following tax incentives and looking for places with cheap production costs."

So, he thought, why not set up a production house in his home state?

"The idea is this could be a full-time business," he said. "Given my background, we can bring in smaller, then larger films, and service them. We want to be a home of full-time production, a service company, and produce our own films, like any studio. We'd really love to have a TV show."

Production studios can make a big splash in local economies. A recent study by Bill LaFayette, owner of the Columbus economic-consulting firm Regionomics, found that production of two feature films per year would be worth $6.4 million to the central Ohio economy, creating a total of 112 full- and part-time jobs and generating tax revenue of $537,000 statewide.

Big River's Granville building, previously occupied by Longaberger Co., encompasses 75,000 square feet, room for three soundstages, any one of which would be as big as the biggest in California.

"We also have a number of offices for post-production, animation, all that, plus acreage," Hartman said. "There's 40 acres, and another 100 available. We really have the ability to grow and expand."

The first production to be shot at Big River is The Tank, a small-budget ($3 million to $4 million) sci-fi thriller produced by Glacier Films.

"This was a film that was supposed to go to Romania," Hartman said.

But Ohio's film tax incentives and Hartman's friendship with Glacier Films co-owner Tove Christensen - brother of Star Wars star Hayden Christensen and a co-founder of Big River - helped move the production to Ohio.

"I basically dragged him by the arm and said, 'How about Ohio?' " Hartman said, laughing.

"It's all Len's fault," director Kellie Madison said during a break from shooting The Tank. "Tove called me and said, 'Would you like to shoot in Romania or Ohio?' "

The decision was a no-brainer, she said, given the filming locations in the area.

"Shooting in Ohio has been invaluable," she said. "OSU has been extremely accommodating - it's a vast, gorgeous location. I think every film should be shot at OSU."

Even so, the move to Ohio is a marked change from decades ago, said Michael Cuddy, line producer and unit production manager for The Tank.

"In the old days, we didn't shoot anywhere outside of Los Angeles," Cuddy said. "Now it's normal - and one of the states where shooting has gone to is Ohio. It's flowing here. If a studio goes to a state multiple times, you know they like it."

While tax incentives have leveled the playing field with other states, he said the personal connections and the locations in central Ohio were the deciding factors.

"We can find 'anywhere America' all around us. And the people are absolutely phenomenal," Cuddy said.

Among those people are 29 OSU students working as interns on the production.

"The kids are very smart, very willing to work - it's those Midwest values, you know," he said.

The Tank will be distributed to theaters, unlike many other movies of similar budget, which go straight to home video.

It stands to be the first of many films to call Big River home.

"Tove and I are actively pursuing a couple of projects," Hartman said. "We hope to have a five-year slate of films set up soon.

"My interest is not only to grow a Columbus movie business, but generate original content," he said. "This can be done. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome is mindset. It just becomes a state of mind. I think right now we have to give it a nudge. We're close to getting the industry growing for us, for the state, for the region.

"You know, when I grew up in Warren, and then at OSU, going to Los Angeles was like going to Mars," he said. "I'd love to give people the option to fulfill their dreams and stay here."