Economic development officials and local businesses reflect upon Portlandia’s legacy as the show prepares to shoot its final season this summer.
The reviews are mostly positive.
Ninety percent of Portlandia’s crew are local residents, according to Portland resident and Portlandia producer David Cress. The show employs 80-120 people, depending upon shoot schedules.
“Most of these jobs are family-friendly with good wages,” Cress says. “Even training duties that don’t offer benefits, provide crew members opportunities to advance up the ranks into living wage jobs in our industry.”
Tim Williams, executive director of Oregon Film, says Portlandia established Portland as a creative mecca in the film and entertainment industry. “The humor, the creativity — it makes my job of attracting production companies to Oregon easier,” he says.
The original Portlandia concept began as ThunderAnt on the web in 2005.
Cress says Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein liked the Portland area and approached him about how to develop a TV show in summer 2010. Broadway Video (founded by SNL Producer Lorne Michaels) green lighted the cable TV concept but considered shooting in other cities like Vancouver, B.C.
"The entire process really caused me to think, wow, we have really good governance in our state,” says Cress. “The Oregon Film Commission and Mayor Sam Adams really went to work with Broadway Video to secure Portland as Portlandia.”
“The show has been great for Oregon. For jobs, for exposure. It’s all locally produced. It’s all Portland,” he says.
Local Business Impact
Many Portland businesses featured in Portlandia sketches echo those sentiments. National exposure did produce extra income for some of the show's iconic locations. Other downtown merchants say the tangibles were mostly curious fans, sight-only tours of Portlandia locations, and, of course, the many customers who parrot show catch-phrases as they shop.
“Yes, we are put a bird on it,” says Amber Castaldo, manager of Land Gallery, a craft and artisan gift store on North Mississippi Avenue featured in Portlandia’s inaugural season.
“I can’t place numbers on it, but the show definitely generated some foot traffic,” she says. “We still have people who just peek their heads in and ask, are you putting a bird on it?”
Castaldo watched off camera as the crew, in one famous scene, simulated total destruction of her shop, while Armisen and Brownstein attempted to stamp a bird on each one of her artisan goods.
“The crew was great,” she says. “Everything they destroyed they brought in first, and explained the process. And they cleaned up afterwards. It was a great experience for us.”
Kate Buska, director of public relations for Provenance Hotels, says business increased at the Sentinel Hotel, a featured location during Portlandia’s current season and season one. “I can only tell you anecdotally, not in pure dollars, but we have felt the business impact of Portlandia.”
Many Portlandia writers and talent also choose lodging at The Sentinel when they visit Portland.
Inside one of Portland’s favorite dive bars, The Florida Room, Portlandia jokes are pickled and stale. (In season 3, Armisen’s recurring character Spike used the North Killingsworth bar as home for a campaign to bring MTV back into the 90’s.)
Florida Room co-owner Mike Hanson says he got more laughs, and customers, when he put a sign outside his bar that read: “Make Portlandia Funny Again!”
“It was a great show when it was super early,” he says. But he is not universally enthusiastic. “They just jump on a joke and pound it into the ground. Overall, the show had no impact on our business whatsoever.”
The most controversial Portland business in the Portlandia universe, In Other Words, a feminist bookshop and community center on Northeast Killingsworth Street, is perhaps the shows darkest critic.
Portrayed on several seasons of Portlandia as the safe space for over-the-top feminist characters Toni and Candace, the real-life Portland feminist center cut all ties with the show in 2016.
In a blog posted on Sept. 30, 2016, the bookstore simply said, “F-Portlandia!” The bookstore blames the Portlandia crew as the beginning of their troubles and critiques superficial portrayals of feminism by the Portlandia characters. (In Other Words did not respond to Oregon Business requests for interviews.)
Says Cress: “In Other Words is a great Portland store. They have been around for many years, and I hope they stay around. I wish them the best.”
Janice Shokrian, Executive Director of OMPA, an organization advocating for film & entertainment industry jobs in Oregon, thinks Portlandia’s popularity helped convince state lawmakers to raise state investment in the Oregon Production Incentive Fund from $10 million to $12 million per year in 2016, edging up to $14 million in 2017.
This may sound like a lot of money but not compared to the millions other states invest.
"Competition for these shows is fierce" says Shokrain. "Hit shows like Portlandia boost small businesses who never show up on-screen. They employ dry cleaners, vendors, and multitudes of other businesses. ”
As evidence, Cress points to an ongoing stop-motion animation sketch within Portlandia produced by Portland’s own Bent Image Labs. The original stop-motion short, produced by the local studio, featured Armisen and Brownstein as rats bemoaning the fact humans are more accepting of their squirrel vermin cousins.
“These stop-motion characters became a recurring sketch used in almost every season,” says Cress. He believes many unseen jobs created by popular shows like Portlandia (such as seasonal runs for local animators) are difficult to replace.
Oregon Film's Williams agrees: “As successful shows like Grimm and Portlandia end, we’re always asking who’s next? But Portlandia will leave a lasting legacy upon the film and entertainment industry in our state.”
Cress himself would like Portlandia to leave a lasting impact on the city that made his show so popular — Portlandia won 4 Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, a Writer’s Guild Award, along with 17 other Primetime Emmy nominations. He currently works with students at Clackamas Community College to produce original PSA’s.
“I want to teach them how to shoot and incorporate positive messages into their work,” he says. “I think Portland has a lot to offer, and I always want to be a part of that.”
Mike Green is an OB editorial intern.