Welcome to a New Year — and the same old mindset but a new opportunity.
Let’s start with the same old mindset. Is the Congress in the process of destroying a federal government intangible asset? Not deliberately, I’m sure. But a recent action illustrates how some policymakers — including Congress — still don’t seem to understand intangible assets. The asset in question is filming rights in front of the U.S. Capitol.
Taking a step backwards, everyone knows that movies and TV are big business. Everyone wants production companies to come to their location to shoot a film or a show. Government’s generally understand that their location’s “view” is an important asset. Last February, the Obama Administration proposed a unified fee schedule for filming on lands controlled by the National Park Service (NPS), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) (see earlier posting). The purpose was to “provide the commercial filming industry with a predictable fee for using federal lands, while earning the government a fair return for the use of that land.” As I’ve noted before, the French government has the Agence du patrimoine immatériel de l’État (APIE) — the Agency for Public Intangibles of France, which, among other things, helps coordinate the filming on public land. State and local government have offices to recruit and assist (and thereby generate revenues from) location filming.
So, now to today’s issue. At the base of the U.S. Capitol is a reflecting pool and a statute of Ulysses S. Grant, officially known as Union Square. This area defines the eastern most portion of the National Mall and was controlled by the National Park Service. Section 1202 of Consolidated Appropriations Act 2012 (that big budget bill passed at the end of the year and signed by the President to keep the government open) transfers control of the land from Park Service to the Architect of the Capitol (AOC). The problem? National Park Service allows filming (as noted above). However, the Architect of the Capitol and the Capitol Police restrict commercial filming on Capitol grounds (some news filming is allowed).
As the Washington City Paper (“An Architect of the Capitol Land Grab Robs Filmmakers of the Best Shot in D.C.”) notes, Union Square is a key area for filming in D.C., especially given that the Capitol grounds are off limits:
“Virtually every single project, whether it’s a TV project or a movie, shoots at Grant statue,” says Jonathan Zurer, a local producer who made an annual trip to the site when working on The West Wing in the early 2000s. “If you come to D.C. from L.A., you’re coming to D.C. because you want to say ‘hey we shot in D.C., and here’s the proof.”
By transferring this area from Park Serve to AOC, the Congress is switching it from a filming allowed area to a filming restricted area. And thereby destroying its value as an intangible asset for the movie and TV industry (and as a revenue generator for the U.S. government).
[By the way, it may also eliminate one of the highlights of the school trip to Washington: the professionally taken, wide angle lens group picture in front of the Capitol.]
A minor point, you might say. Yes — minor in the overall size of the budget but major in terms of illustrating the mindset. The switch of jurisdiction to the AOC was done without thinking through the consequences. At a time when we need to be utilizing all of our intangible assets, the concept just seems to get lost.
There may be still time to rectify this — and even make lemonade out of lemons. There is nothing in the transfer legislation that prohibits commercial filming at Union Square. Nor, as far as I can tell, is there any legislation ban on commercial filming on Capitol grounds. That appears to be either an AOC or Capitol Police policy.
Congress should use this opportunity to take a close look at the Congressional commercial filming policy. What is really needed for security reasons? Perhaps spots such as Union Square can be opened up. I would note that there are designated spots for news cameras already (on the Senate side, it used to be in a area we called “the swamp” because that is what it turned into after a rain). Maybe those spaces could be opened up for commercial filming. As importantly, Congress could set a fee for the commercial use of these designated areas consistent with the Park Service fees.
Two policy objectives could be accomplished with such a review. First, Congress would establish a coherent policy to open up an intangible asset under its control. Second, and as important, such as review would highlight the importance of and the need for a larger review of government intangible assets.
I hope Congress will seize on this opportunity and help make 2012 a breakthrough year in our understanding and utilization of our valuable intangible assets.