Monday, April 6, 1998 | 9:18 a.m.
Nevada holds a special place in Charles Geocaris' heart.
As a preteen, he was bitten by the cinematic bug at the University of Nevada, Reno, while his father was attending summer school there.
"That was really when I fell in love with movies, because every night we'd go to the fine arts building (on campus) and we'd watch all the greats -- 'The Grapes of Wrath' and 'Sunset Boulevard' and 'Citizen Kane,' " he says.
Coincidentally, that same summer, famed director Francis Ford Coppola was also filming "The Godfather Part II" in nearby Lake Tahoe. Geocaris considers the flick -- along with the original "The Godfather" -- "two of the best movies ever made."
This month, 36-year-old Geocaris, a filmmaker and former Chicago Film Commissioner, heads back to the Silver State to serve as the director of the Nevada Motion Picture Division.
Having overseen the filming of such box office hits as "Home Alone," "The Fugitive" and "Sleepless in Seattle" during his 11 year-tenure with the Windy City film office, he was selected for the Nevada job through a nationwide search that yielded about 60 resumes from around the county.
"I think he'll get things back on a roll for us," says Bob Shriver, executive director of Nevada's Commission on Economic Development, which oversees the Motion Picture Division. "He has great contacts in Hollywood and ... in New York and Chicago. He brings a lot to the plate."
Geocaris left his Chicago film office post three years ago to found Heartland Films, a production company that has projects in development. (He'll abandon them to concentrate on his position here.)
Having made small films since he was a teen, "I knew how to set up a camera and work with lighting," he says, adding that the workings of the film office "really struck me as a whole side of the business that I never learned in school."
The duties of Nevada's film commission director -- a state government position previously held since 1983 by Bob Hirsch, who retired last year -- include drumming up television and motion picture filming business for Nevada.
That's done largely through print ads in trade publications, paid for by a portion of the division's $600,000 annual budget, which will also fund Geocaris' salary of roughly $60,000 a year, according to Shriver.
First on Geocaris' to-do list: Survey Hollywood bigwigs to gauge their impressions of our fair state.
"I know that there have been some big movies that have filmed (in Nevada) in the past," he says, noting that he wants to "blitz" Los Angeles studio executives "and talk to them about their experiences (in Nevada) and let them know that a change has been made and we have the support for them" to film here.
In Chicago, "we always felt that you really have to work with them and kind of hold their hand through the production and make them feel that they have an extra team of people supporting them at the film office level," he says. "It's a real word-of-mouth business. If it's not (a good experience), they'll tell people."
If a shot requires that a street be shut down, it's his job to make sure that happens and that traffic is re-routed. Filming a period piece? He's the guy to make arrangements so that, say, crosswalks and signage are painted and hung to depict the era.
Geocaris wants to be available for production crew members days ahead of their arrival to fuss over details for them, and also to coordinate with area businesses and residents, lest they feel "invaded" by the action.
Speaking of businesses, he plans to chat with local industries -- hotel-casinos, unions and other companies that provide services to filmmakers -- about their concerns and potential for working with projects that may set up shop here.
"The people that I've met are very enthusiastic and very professional," he says. "Everything that I've researched shows that things are in place for what could be a major boom and a major film center" in the state.
He has researched and is supportive of plans of private companies to build production studios and sound stages around the state, particularly in Las Vegas, where his office will be based and where the bulk of filming in Nevada takes place.
"In Chicago, at times, we had so many features going that they would just find space anywhere" to film, he says, explaining that the interior house shots featured in "Home Alone" were filmed in a converted tennis facility. "It worked for them because it was soundproof" and large enough to accommodate the scenery.
Ready to roll
Nevada's sound stages are a plus from a marketing standpoint, he says. "It shows that the area is growing and that people are serious about having long-term commitments for production in the area."
Say, a television series? Geocaris is eager to have one based in the Silver State, as it would result in "continuous employment" in all aspects of the entertainment industry, from actors to supply companies.
That comes as good news to local film production facilities, including Las Vegas Video and Sound.
Owner Larry Hamm says business has been slow for the past six months and that he misses the days when his place was used during production of the films "Fools Rush In," "Con Air" and "Vegas Vacation."
"I'm hoping very much that (Geocaris) gets things going again and gets things moving. I've got a lot invested here," Hamm says, noting that his overhead costs are about $10,000 a month.
Says Geocaris: "There are lulls (in) every production area, where (projects) are not coming through, but that's how production is, it's very cyclical."
With the exception of Los Angeles and New York, that is. "Those are two (cities) that have so much built-in production to begin with that it's tough to compete with them," he says.
Robin Holobird, the Motion Picture Division's Reno-based deputy director, says Nevada's return to the big screen may be coming around again.
"We have to remind (production companies) that just because they have been here (before) doesn't mean they've seen what it is today," she says. "Nevada as a whole has a great diversity of types of landscapes to offer."
(Good news: Holabird says that the makers of the upcoming "Lethal Weapon 4" recently scouted the state in search of a freeway on which to film in the coming weeks.)
But breathtaking skylines and endless desert matter little, Geocaris says, unless filmmakers "leave really feeling that the city and the state are behind them, helping them day in and day out to get the production done.
"That's really what counts when it's all over with," he says, "that they're telling you, 'This has been a great experience for us and we want to come back.' "