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8/12/2010 8:37:00 AM
'Transformers 3' films on streets of Gary

Jon Seidel, Post-Tribune Staff Writer

GARY -- The soldier knelt in the dirt beside a rusted-out industrial factory ringed by a dusting of Russian snow. He examined an item on the ground, then looked to the sky to demand answers.

Looking down on him was the face of Optimus Prime, an alien robot. But it was only Prime's two-dimensional face, attached to a tall pole held steady by a member of a movie crew.

The soldier was really an actor, Josh Duhamel. Even though "snow" was on the ground, a brutal sun ran the thermometer up beyond 90 degrees. And Majestic Star Casino stood just over the horizon.

A "Transformers 3" film crew spent hours Wednesday in Gary making their next blockbuster movie outside the former Lehigh cement plant on Majestic Star's property. Director Michael Bay could be seen there, leading actors like Duhamel through a scene they filmed again and again.

It's the second time members of the "Transformers" crew visited Gary this year, and it's the second year in a row a big-budget movie came to Northwest Indiana's largest city to film. The crews are lured partially by a resource unlikely to make Gary residents swell with pride.

"We were looking for a place to emulate a foreign country with a series of abandoned buildings," Producer Ian Bryce said.

Nevertheless, the film crews these movies bring with them spend money in the community and create a small but welcome revenue stream at City Hall. Ben Clement, who runs Gary's film office as a volunteer, said filming in Gary has picked up significantly in the last four years. He doesn't mind why they're showing up in Gary, he's just glad they're here.

"If you've got lemons, you make lemonade," Clement said. "And if that's the reason they're coming, so be it."

"Transformers" might move their shoot next to City Methodist Church, a crumbling cathedral found at West 6th Avenue and Washington Street. Last year a crew filmed "Nightmare on Elm Street" there.

Today, praise from that movie's assistant location manager, Nicholas "Shady" Jamison, can be found on the website of Film Indiana, a division of the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

"City personnel, police departments, residents and business owners were more than enthusiastic during our film shoot and extremely cooperative throughout the entire process," Jamison wrote.

"Transformers" producer Lorenzo diBonaventura said good word-of-mouth referrals and helpful city officials are the kinds of things Gary needs if it wants to secure more major motion pictures. He said Gary officials have been accommodating and "encouraged us to be here."

"They want to help us make it work," diBonaventura said.

However, if Gary wants to be a serious filming attraction, "Transformers" location manager Ilt Jones said it might ask for help from the state.

Film Indiana says the Hoosier state offers a maximum tax credit of 15 percent for movie makers, but Illinois offers them a credit of up to 30 percent to produce there, according to its film office.

"If Indiana outdoes Illinois," Jones said, "that's when the fun starts."

Clement said Gary is benefitting not because of tax credits but because of its proximity to Chicago. diBonaventura said about 500 people might have been involved in Wednesday's shoot in Gary, and it costs money to move all of them.

"We've begun to get a lot of referrals" Clement said.

A few members of the "Transformers" cast spent a night at Majestic Star's hotel, officials said, but most of them made accommodation in Chicago. Nevertheless, Clement said filmmakers bring money to Gary's economy.

Paramount Pictures and DW Studios Productions will pay for the handful of Gary public safety workers on the set Wednesday. Clement said there are also opportunities for neighbors to earn money when movies come to town. For example, when "Nightmare" filmed on Tyler Street last year, a few nearby residents were paid for the inconvenience.

When documentarian Spike Lee came to Gary last year to make a film about Michael Jackson, Clement said, Lee paid to rent a church where food was set up for his crew.

"There's significant economic impact," Clement said.

Finally, Gary created a set of filming fees last year that moviemakers are required to pay. "Transformers" paid City Hall $1,550 to film here this month. Before Gary created the fees, Clement said not having them gave Gary a competitive advantage. However, he said their creation hasn't been a problem.

"Our little piddly film fees are nothing," Clement said.

Clement points out Gary has more to offer filmmakers than abandoned buildings, including beach locations and an inner-city urban atmosphere. And crew members Wednesday said they don't intend to associate Gary with the empty Lehigh plant.

However, Gary residents might recognize their hometown when "Transformers 3" hits theaters. Producers said they're confident the scene shot Wednesday in Gary will make the final cut.

"A very important piece of information is revealed in this scene," diBonaventura said. "The movie makes no sense without it."

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Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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