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The West

Incentives – more than money

By Tom Inglesby

Big Sur, Calif.
Big Sur, Calif.

The western states, as a whole, are filled with more scenery than people. There are, of course, pockets of population that skew that logic – Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, Las Vegas, and a few other cities – and they tend to be very urban areas, filled with views that can be found in cities east or west, But the grandeur of the land away from the cities is what attracts film makers from all over the world. Until they find a Grand Canyon in Pennsylvania, Arizona will have a unique claim to being the place to shoot…well, grand films in canyons.

What Arizona lacks, at this time, is a place to turn to for production assistance and financial incentives. Ah, the “I” word. Incentives have become the backbone of film and video production. In the immortal words of Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) in Jerry McGuire: Show me the money. Or the rebate, refund, tax break, whatever can make the production easier or less costly. But now it has become a competition among states – and in several cases, among cities within a state – to find ways to entice without spending because, quite simply, there is no money to show.

No help wanted available

Arizona is an example. According to Lee McMichael, tourism director for the City of Page, Arizona – gateway to the Glenn Canyon Dam and Lake Powell recreation area – the state has given up on trying to lure film and video projects. “With the Governor’s stance on the film industry, it’s hard to get crews in here, but we’re making our voices heard to her office to reinstate incentives. Gov. Brewer’s shutting off film industry incentives has hurt all of the state. The last film shot here was the recently released Gravity, but the Lake Powell portion was probably shot a few years ago before she was elected.”

As McMichael says, the state has decided to ignore the value and impact of entertainment projects. Several cities and areas have indicated a desire to step into that void, Page being one. “Just today we’ve been approached by a documentary company to shoot at Horseshoe Bend, which is on city property so we can accommodate that,” said McMichael. He’s also working with the Northern Arizona Council of Governments, NACOG, seeking ways, and probably funding sources, to work with producers without the state getting involved.

In some cases, any help would be welcomed. Flagstaff, another northern location with abundant scenic resources – one of the gateways to the Grand Canyon, for example – is limiting involvement. “Right now with Arizona having no incentives and no state film office, we have only been responsive to inquiries, not advertising the area,” Heather Ainardi said. Ainardi is the marketing and public relations manager for the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau. Flagstaff does have one unspoken benefit for indie productions and those on a limited budget (aren’t they all?), and that is Northern Arizona University. As Ainardi claims, “NAU’s production courses are gaining more notoriety.” Can you say, “interns”?

Going south a ways, Prescott’s filming projects, according to Wendy Bridges of the city’s administration, are primarily television commercials and clothing catalogs. And further down that road we come to the local elephant in the room, Phoenix. Or more accurately, the Phoenix metro area, also known as the Valley of the Sun.

Phil Bradstock, program manager for the Phoenix Film Office, understands the fragmented nature of the state’s production environment. “We find that, with the lack of a state film office, people go to the city that they know the best and they’re most familiar with. That tends to be Phoenix just because of the name recognition. So we do get a lot of calls, but I know Tucson also gets calls because people associate Tucson with the Old West of Arizona.”

The Valley of the Sun covers more than 20 cities and towns, many with familiar names such as Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, and of course, Phoenix. That creates a number of what might be considered fiefdoms, each with its own rules. Bradstock explained, “It really depends upon what city you want to shoot in. That dictates which entity you need to go through to get a film permit, for example. I oversee the defined boundaries of the City of Phoenix. In Greater Phoenix, the many different cities don’t have film offices; they have special event permitting offices. I can direct people to the exact person they need to talk to if they’re going to be in a particular city.”

While states such as New Mexico, Washington and Nevada have extensive online resources to help producers find crews, facilities and contacts, Arizona has been slow to adopt, especially since the film commission closed in 2011. What they did have was a production directory, on paper, that listed resources. But Bradstock indicates that is going online in a big way. “We’re really finding that these books that we were publishing are becoming a thing of the past. Most people are calling in looking for things on their iPads and their iPhones and they really don’t want to carry something around that’s extra weight. They want to just to go to the website. So we should have shortly an incredibly enhanced website that will work perfectly on the smartphones and all the tablet computers.”

Right now, Bradstock’s website (www. filmphoenix.com) is where you can go for the most information, at least on what is going on in Phoenix proper. “I only publish things on there that have an actual Phoenix film permit. So if they’re shooting entirely in Scottsdale and don’t have a Phoenix permit, then they’re not going to be listed.”

Wild in the woods

If you want desert scenes, Arizona comes to mind. If you want wilderness, rainforests, and mountains, perhaps Oregon comes to mind first. It did at Fox Searchlight Pictures. They announced in October that director Jean-Marc Valléebegan principal photography in Oregon on Wild. The film stars Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon with screenplay adapted by Oscar-nominated writer Nick Hornby from author Cheryl Strayed’s best seller “Wild.” The filmmakers are aided by the State of Oregon and the Pacific Crest Trail Association (www.pcta.org) to safely and responsibly capture the wild trail experience for film audiences.

Unlike Arizona, Oregon does offer some interesting incentives on their website (oregonfilm.org). As a result of legislation passed in 2013, Oregon’s Department of Revenue will be conducting tax credit auctions to help finance the Oregon Production Investment Fund (OPIF). In October 2013, the total amount of tax credits to be auctioned was $4 million. Businesses and individuals with an Oregon income tax liability may bid on the certificates. Using this tax auction to raise funds for production incentives is a novel idea, one that might catch on with states looking to improve their programs to bring new film and video projects to their locations.

Northern lights

Among the states with a wide variety of locations but only a few well known among producers and, equally important, filmgoers, is Nevada. Everyone knows Las Vegas. Not everyone knows Reno. Billed as the “Biggest Little City in the World,” Reno and nearby Lake Tahoe, offer some of the more diverse visual resources in the state. Unlike Las Vegas, there is actually some history left in the Reno area. And weather. And rocks.

Deep Roots Media and SkyPoint Visuals are producing a series of rock climbing shorts based around the Tahoe basin’s hard but classic boulder challenges. Over the past few years, a select group of hard climbing Tahoe locals have been scouring the area and secretly picking off world-class granite problems (the term used to describe any given climb). This series is to honor their hard work.

Sean Haverstock of SkyPoint Visuals had his hand-held stabilized gimbal on location. “We stuck it on the end of our fifteen-foot jib with the ability to control and view the camera axis wirelessly. Although we only got a few takes, because of time constraints, we were really psyched about the potential shots this combination can have.”

Reno, Tahoe and Washoe County not only offer production information, they are offering facilities. Film Reno Tahoe (filmrenotahoe.com), a division of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, is the liaison for film and television production in Northern Nevada. The agency is focused on building a sophisticated and comprehensive infrastructure to help producers and filmmakers take full advantage of the many assets and cost advantages the area has to offer.

Film Reno Tahoe offers free production services along with studio space (three stages with sizes up to 70,000 sq. ft.) at very competitive rates. They also have forged alliances with the most experienced local and regional firms to create strategic partnerships that are better able to meet the needs of filmmakers.

In the area of monetary incentives, Nevada’s Film Office makes the following offers: Up to 19 percent on purchases from qualified Nevada vendors; up to 19 percent on Nevada resident wages, taxes and benefits; and up to 16 percent on above the line wages, taxes and benefits. There also are incentive rates of up to 16 percent for non-resident below the line wages, taxes and benefits.

Naturally, there are limitations: An annual cap of $20 million, maximum incentive per production of $6 million, wages and benefits per employee limited to $750,000; Nevada producers’ compensation limited to 10 percent of overall budget, and out-of-state producers’ compensation limited to 5 percent of overall budget. At the other end, minimum qualified Nevada expenditures of $500,000, and minimum of 60 percent of overall production/post-production spend incurred in Nevada for eligibility. Still, a very intriguing package.

Shot where?

If you pick up the phone and call some state’s film commissions, the first thing they’ll tell you is their website address. Most states – at least the ones that still have film commissions – invest heavily in an online presence. There you’ll find info and hype in equal proportions.

For example, the New Mexico site (www.nmfilm.com) boasts about attracting Breaking Bad, one of the sleeping giants of TV for the past five years. Sleepy Albuquerque has come alive along with this AMC show. Indeed, the Tourism Department is creating New Mexico True Adventures based on films shot in the state. New Mexico businesses that offer a tourist attraction related to a film can be included in one of these adventures. The current adventure theme is based on Breaking Bad and local vendors with some affiliation with this production that have services or attractions that relate to tourism, are being contacted to join the party.

Among film bureaus and commissions, the goal often seems to be what productions they can capture away from another state, a state that would seem like a natural fit for the film. New Mexico loves to play that game. When a new NBC show was announced, the synopsis read: “The Night Shift is an ensemble medical show about a group of ex-Army doctors who work the night shift at a hospital in San Antonio, Texas and do whatever it takes to help their patients.” What wasn’t said was that this San Antonio hospital will be shot in Albuquerque.

Or take the famous slogan of Montana – Big Sky Country. You’d naturally expect a film titled Big Sky to be shot in – wait for it – New Mexico, right? Of course! New Mexico Film Office Director Nick Maniatis announced that the independent feature Big Sky, starring Kyra Sedgwick, Bella Thorne, Frank Grillo, and Aaron Tveit would film in Albuquerque and the surrounding areas. The production will employ 40 New Mexico crewmembers and 10 New Mexico actors and background talent.

Rain and more

When it comes to aggressive recruiting of film productions, few states can compare with Washington. Again, like New Mexico, their website (www.washingtonfilmworks.org) is extensive and filled with valuable information and resources. There you’ll find that Laggies filmed key scenes in several Puget Sound cities, including Seattle, Shoreline, Kenmore, Lynwood, Mill Creek, Renton, Bellevue and Bothell. The bulk of production took place in Seattle. Laggies is a feature film directed by Seattle-based Lynn Shelton and written by Andrea Seigel. The project stars Chloë Grace Moretz, Keira Knightley, and Sam Rockwell.

Earlier in 2013, 7 Minutes wrapped principal photography after shooting in Everett, Wash. Written and directed by Jay Martin, the action-drama stars a mix of up-and-coming talent, such as Luke Mitchell, with seasoned pros such as Kris Kristofferson. The film tells the story of a once-promising college athlete, his drug dealing brother and their ex-con friend who embark on an ill-fated heist. This production is the second feature film that Whitewater Films has brought to Washington in the last two years and is one of 89 projects Washington Filmworks (WF) has approved through a standard funding assistance program. These productions represent an estimated $213 million economic impact statewide since the Washington Legislature created Washington Filmworks in 2007.

New legislation supporting film programs went into effect on June 7, 2013. Washington Filmworks accepts applications for projects that meet in-state spending thresholds of $500,000 for motion pictures, $300,000 for episodic series (per episode) and $150,000 for commercials. “We have $3.5 million annually to allocate towards production in Washington State,” said Amy Lillard, WF’s executive director. “WF offers cash back in 30 days for qualified in-state expenditures.”

Washington also works to honor and assist local projects though the Filmworks Innovation Lab. The program, which is part of a long-term economic development strategy, is designed to invest in the future of film by tapping into Washington’s creative community and encouraging original storytelling that capitalizes on new forms of production and technology. The Board of Directors may allocate up to $350,000 per year in funding assistance to support the motion picture production components of multifaceted, groundbreaking projects that apply to the Innovation Lab.

Nobody home

Hollywood casts a long shadow over film production in the West. Discussing film usually means discussing LA and Hollywood. Although there is more to California than those centers of entertainment production, due to economic and political problems, other areas go unnoticed. Like Arizona, the second city of California, San Diego, has lost its film commission, but not its desire to attract productions tired of fighting the LA traffic (and worse).

While there has been no official replacement for the San Diego Film Commission, there are volunteers working to make the area receptive to new productions. According to the San Diego Film Consortium, the most active group, the Film Commission was essentially a middle man. “They went to entities such as the City of San Diego, the County of San Diego and the Port of San Diego and did the legwork to help people obtain permits. Despite them closing, you still need to obtain permits, but there will just be a different process to follow. The Film Commission also made recommendations based on your script and locations that included hiring police officers, medical staff, etc. It is unclear at this point how the different entities plan to address this component.”

Unless the Film Commission reopens, there is no designated office that has the exclusive right to help filmmakers obtain permits. In the meanwhile, others may try to offer that service, but you are not obligated to go through any particular agency or business to obtain permits.

San Diego remains a film-friendly city for large or small features, TV series and movies, music videos and commercials. It has a deep pool of union and non-union crew, talent and creative professionals. The county has canyons, valleys, mesas, forest, lakes, ranches, mountains, dunes, and marshes. There are deserts to the east, beaches to the west, and aquatic parks to the North.

Speaking of the north, North San Diego County has seen a new sound stage open in 2013, North County Media Center in Vista. According to Jefferson Drexler, the general manager, “We offer a 1,750 square-foot soundstage, and 900 square-foot, three-walled cyclorama infinity background, plus a spacious green room with fully equipped dressing/guest facilities. Our goal is to provide a full array of lighting equipment for all productions, including ARRI, KinoFlo and much more. There is a wide array of sets and backgrounds, including a green screen cyclorama for virtual sets and a white Infinity Screen background.”

Even without a formal film commission, San Diego is moving forward from the Mexican border to the fringes of Orange County to the north. One of the northern most cities, Oceanside, is drumming up film business with a local feel. Leslee Gaul, president of the city’s visitor bureau, Visit Oceanside (www.visitoceanside.org) noted, “The most common film locations include the Oceanside Pier, beaches and outdoor amphitheater, and the Oceanside Small Craft Harbor and Cape Cod-style Harbor Village, with unlimited water sports and recreation. Other unique locations are the Mission San Luis Rey, California Surf Museum, and the historic Oceanside Heritage Park Village and Museum, which includes a gazebo and replicas of historic downtown Oceanside. From French Normandy architecture to beach bungalow-style homes, Oceanside is home to beautiful vacation rental homes that can provide a unique back drop as well housing for the talent and crew.”

In east Oceanside, there are agriculture areas that include wineries and flower fields. Shaper’s Alley is home to more than 20 surfboard manufactures and surf-related businesses. “We have Tsunami Skydiving that has worked with Craig O’Brien, photographer and videographer on commercials and videos,” Gaul recalled. “The Aero Coastal Biplane also operates out of our airport. The historic 101 café, the oldest continuously operating restaurant on Route 101, is also a fun and unique venue and was used in Sister Wives and Getting Away Together.”

Recent activity includes Car Rescue and American Pickers,but the film most remembered that was shot in Oceanside was Top Gun. The “Top Gun House” is still an attraction. Although not open to the public, crowds can often be seen lined up outside, shooting their own video of the property.

Go (further) north

  Sailing Alaska’s Inside Passage. Alaska Film Office / Alaska Travel Industry Assn.
  Sailing Alaska’s Inside Passage.
Alaska Film Office / Alaska Travel Industry Assn.

Johnny Horton sang it in 1960: “North to Alaska, They go north, the rush is on.” Maybe the rush isn’t quite as dramatic as the gold rush, but certainly the state is bringing in film gold. And it’s almost done in stealth mode. A reorganization of the film promotion activity in Alaska moved the incentive program from the Department of Commerce to the Department of Revenue, which has strict privacy rules. What’s being filmed and what is coming are almost state secrets. That can be both a benefit and a problem for production companies.

Dave Worrell, director of the Alaska Film Production Promotion Program (www.film.alaska.gov), part of the Department of Commerce, explained, “I’m still tasked with talking to productions and giving them location advice and helping them locate who to talk to about permits and all of those things. I just don’t have any hard data on the incentive program anymore.”

What he does have is an extensive website for production. “Besides a good locations database there are three other categories – crew listings, which are for individuals; support service listings, which are for businesses; and talent listings,” Worrell added. “The Alaska Film Group, and their website at alaskafilmgroup.org, also has listings of their membership. They are a member-based organization, so my listings will probably be more comprehensive, but perhaps a little less screened.”

He continued, “What we do is work with productions to make sure they’re getting in touch with the right organization. Alaska, more than most other states, is a patchwork of state, federal and Alaskan native, but very little private land. So, certainly negotiating the maze of agencies to figure out exactly whom you need to get permits from is where we can help. A lot of times, because a production doesn’t know exactly where they’re going to film until they’re here and starting, often the location scout will actually work with them on that process.”

If you aren’t interested in snow sculptures for a background, why go north to Alaska in the first place? “We’ve got mountains and glaciers and wildlife and absolutely amazing shorelines and seacoasts and fishing communities and just the amazing things that people associate with Alaska,” Worrell responded. “So I think that’s the number-one thing. But we are a little bit further away from the centers of the film universe, and so we do also have a very aggressive incentive program that can make shooting those amazing locations a practical reality for productions.”

Back in the lower 48

When you talk about filming in the West, you naturally think of filming Westerns. As anyone who has been to Phoenix, LA, San Diego or Las Vegas can tell you, there are western locations that do not look Western. Still, there are states that push the Old West aspects – often with a twist.

We mentioned New Mexico as the home of the film Big Sky; what about the “real” Big Sky Country, Montana? The Montana Film Office (www.montanafilm.com) offers competitive cash incentives and generous soft incentives for production efforts in the state through the Big Sky Film Grant. Targeting feature-length films and television series shooting at least 50 percent in Montana, the grant awards a total of $1 million cash per fiscal year to eligible projects. Selected productions receive funds 30 to 60 days after principal photography wraps.

Combined with Montana’s tax incentives, which provide 14 percent back on Montana crew and talent salaries and 9 percent back on production-related expenditures made in Montana, the grant offers qualifying productions up to 20 percent in cash enhancements. Qualified film-related expenditures incurred in the state, including all talent and crew salaries, are eligible. Productions find additional savings through the state’s sales tax-free status and the accommodations tax reimbursement after 30 consecutive days.

“We make sure that we’re there through every step of the grant process, so we can help maximize the returns productions are getting,” said Montana Film Commissioner Deny Staggs. “Our goal is to make sure that Montana’s great locations, talent and crew remain available and affordable for every production.”

The Montana Film Office also offers producers complimentary script breakdowns and location services, helping them find that rushing river, Old West town, mountain and prairie vista, Main Street and much more. During production, the staff acts as liaisons with producers and state and federal agencies to assist productions in obtaining the necessary permits and access. Through the Film Office’s database of in-state crew and support services, productions can keep expenses down as well by utilizing local crew and service providers.

Not an outlier

Another state that offers that Old West vibe is Wyoming. A recent shoot there was for the film Druid Peak. Taking advantage of the area’s unique features, it is set against the backdrop of the wolf reintroduction program in Yellowstone National Park, Druid Peak is a coming-of-age story about a troubled teenage boy who finds a home tracking wolves in the wild lands of the Wyoming.

Shot on location in West Virginia, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Utah, Druid Peak stars Andrew Wilson, Spencer Treat Clark, Rachel Korine, and the wolves of Wasatch Rocky Mountain Wildlife.

Wolves may be a Wyoming plus, but so is snow. A local film company, Brain Farm Digital Cinema in Jackson, packs a lot into a snow day. Chad Jackson, EP at Brain Farm noted, “We have assembled an arsenal of specialty cameras, unique cinema vehicles, camera support systems, as well as state-of-the-art production facilities allowing us to create powerful digital cinema from concept to finished product.”

One of those finished products is The Art of Flight 3D,which is a 3D version of a film originally shown in IMAX theaters. Shot with multiple aerial vehicles, it shows the snowboard flying of world champion Travis Rice. Born in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and son of a ski patroller, it is said that Travis Rice has snow in his blood. He is hailed by critics as the best all-round snowboarder in the world and is one of the most globally renowned riders to date with more than 12 years of elite competition experience and more than 30 grand slam titles in his possession,

Filmed in his native haunts of Wyoming, The Art of Flight combines aerial footage and exciting snowboarding and is the highest grossing snowboarding film ever. The 3D version will only add to these numbers.

Although off the beaten path, Wyoming isn’t a stranger to the incentive wars. Like other states, they use a sliding scale. Rebate percentages range between 12 percent and 15 percent based on the specific criteria. A storyline that is set in Wyoming gets the full 15-percent rebate. Providing additional Wyoming behind-the-scenes footage highlighting locations used in the project gets you up to a14-precent rebate. Using Wyoming props and product placement provides up to a 13-percent rebate, while providing a clear statement in the credits that the product was filmed in Wyoming means a minimum 12-percent rebate.

The West is much more than Westerns, LA and Las Vegas neon, deserts and space aliens. It’s the great outdoors and glamorous indoors, wolves in wolf skin and sheepskin – or tuxedos. It’s where Breaking Bad broke loose and wild horses get broken every day.

It’s the West, try it, you’ll like it.  

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A blue sky sprawls between ridges frosted in deep evergreen, framing Alder Gulch much as when Native American tribes traversed this landscape 800 years ago. The town of Virginia City sprang up virtually overnight in the summer of 1863; within one year, it was the largest city in the Inland Northwest, with an estimated 10,000 residents. These days, few people continue seeking gold in Alder Gulch. But for filmmakers seeking ready-made Old West locations, the towns of Virginia City and Nevada City offer one more chance to strike it rich.

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