Economy Lights, Camera, Economic Stimulus!
How to use the film industry to stimulate the economy.
By Randy Harward
In the movie business, knowing your assets and how to sell them is the key to big bucks. Whether you’re an aspiring actor, director, technician, you’ve simply got to strut your stuff. And the same is true for sets. You might be a hunky metropolitan city or a little hick town in a podunk state with the range (or scenery) to play either. Demonstrate this to producers of feature films, television series or commercial productions, and your town might be on the express train to relative fame and fortune, or at least economic stimulus.

Movie magic can create any number of contexts for silver screen stories on a soundstage, but there is no substitute for the real thing. A studio might be lensing an epic fantasy and require snowy, mountainous terrain or verdant, rolling hills. A buzz band may desire an arid desert to portray a post-apocalyptic wasteland in their debut music video. Perhaps a television commercial demands a homey, small-town setting—or a dark, seedy alley lined with dive bars. If your town can provide any or all of those settings, you’re golden, kid.

In recent years, ostensibly odd locations have served as the backdrop for big movies. Preston, Idaho, a small town just over the Utah-Idaho border, was the scene of Napoleon Dynamite, Jared Hess’ hugely successful comedy about a hapless misfit finding his mojo. And an area near Strawberry Reservoir in Utah County served as endless Arctic tundra in the Nicolas Cage thriller National Treasure. These areas aren’t Hollywood, but hey—Superman’s Brandon Routh can’t really fly.

"Utah is a unique state," says Utah Film Commission Director Aaron Syrett. "Few states can support film production in terms of crew and locations like we do. Utah has an extremely strong crew infrastructure that makes us difficult to compete with. That combined with locations that can accommodate most any type of need gives our state a strong advantage."

Sometimes, you can even get a city to play another city. The Boston Globe reported that many films set in Boston have actually been shot elsewhere. Productions such as the Jimmy Fallon-Drew Barrymore romantic comedy Fever Pitch and the upcoming Martin Scorsese thriller The Departed chose to shoot most of their films in Toronto and New York City, respectively due to the cities’ similar aesthetics. Not to mention financial incentives. Range alone won’t land a production—sometimes you have to make it look sexy dollar-wise to get the part.

To that end, states like Utah and Minnesota have devised competitive incentives to attract productions. Each state is geographically and aesthetically dynamic and diverse—and both boast ideal winter climates as a marquee attraction. Here, the incentives can make or break a deal.

In 2003, the Utah Film Commission implemented the Motion Picture Incentive Fund, which offers productions a post-performance10% tax rebate on every dollar spent in the state. In addition, Utah offers Sales and Use Tax Exemption on film, TV and video equipment and a Transient Room Tax rebate on public accommodations for cast and crew. In 2006, Minnesota’s legislature voted to restore funding to their $1.7 million Snowbate production incentive, which had been dormant since 2002. The program offers a reimbursement of up to 15 percent of costs incurred in Minnesota to producers qualifying feature films, national television series, documentaries, music videos and commercials.

In a press release, Minnesota Film and TV Commission Board Executive Director Lucinda Winter said, "This funding puts us back in the film and television game, providing rebates for about $12 million worth of production costs spent in Minnesota between July 1, 2006 and June 30, 2007."

The benefits of these generous incentives are three-fold: revenue from the productions, revenue from tourism (when film buffs flock to see where their faves were shot) and jobs. Minnesota’s Snowbate is directly tied to employment. To take advantage of their incentive, a production must directly create new production jobs in Minnesota. In the state of Louisiana, over the fiscal years 2002-2005, exactly one-third of the production costs have been spent in the state and, while there is no order directly related jobs, film production has generated $112.4 million in payroll to Louisiana residents (just over 30% of total production costs).

Not surprisingly, Syrett says the economic impact of the incentives "is easy to demonstrate." For any state, increased incentive funding leads to "increased direct expenditures to the state, and that translates to more economic revenue through film production as well as more quality job creation." And in Utah, for fiscal years 2005 to the beginning of 2007, a total of $49.2 million was spent in the state for film productions that received a little over $3.3 million in the incentives from the state for about a 15 to 1 return on investment. During that same time production and film events, such as the Sundance Film Festival, left over $266 million in direct spending to the state. "The important factor to note is that the incentives acted as a catalyst for other productions. Once the spotlight was cast for the projects that received incentives, other producers were able to see all that we have to offer brought their projects here too."

It’s a tantalizing prospect for any town looking to stimulate its economy. It’s glamorous, and the fiscal rewards can be substantial—the typical Hollywood dream. Put back into context, it goes a long way to increasing the quality of life among residents. So how does one get started? Are there any hot tips?

"Though there's no magic formula for creating an environment that is conducive to production," Syrett says. Much of it, as with the National Treasure tundra, amounts to getting creative, finding your area’s attributes and selling them. Though while strutting your stuff is key, another simpler dimension is the one thing too many people forget on the way up the Hollywood ladder: hospitality and reliability, something many of our hometowns have in spades.

"There are a few things that may make it easier to develop a stronger film industry such as making it as easy as possible for productions to come there," says Syrett. "Permitting issues, unreliable crew, difficult locations, and unexpected hazards can be seriously detrimental for any production. The producers need to know that they have the support of the local government and community. They need to have good access to the equipment and locations and it's also important for them to have someone, like a state film office, to count on in order to help them sort out issues that do come along."

So if you got it, flaunt it.

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