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The return of Froggy Doo

How Montana’s new initiative to lure Hollywood works

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Montana lost Froggy Doo once, and the state’s Film Office and Gov. Brian Schweitzer were hell-bent on not losing the once-popular puppet a second time. Last week Schweitzer announced that Hollywood production company Fairplay Pictures had decided to film its family drama, A Plumm Summer, about the 1966 national news-making disappearance of a popular children’s show puppet, in Montana. Landing the $3.5 million-budget film is the first deal successfully inked under the state’s new “Big Sky on the Big Screen Act,” a tax-incentive package designed to make Montana a player in the ultra-competitive business of luring big-spending Hollywood productions. But the dealing that landed A Plumm Summer goes beyond simple tax incentives. How exactly did Montana land A Plumm Summer, and what exactly did the state have to give up to get it? More importantly, what will the state get in return by having it filmed here? The answers start with something as unpredictable as the weather.

The producers of A Plumm Summer admit that Montana’s financial package wasn’t as sweet as those of its competitors. Producer Frank Antonelli says seven different states and provinces (Canada’s long-standing incentives and favorable exchange rates make it a major draw) were scouted as possible filming locations, and the two final candidates were Montana and South Carolina. If A Plumm Summer was filmed in South Carolina, near Charleston, Fairplay could have saved $750,000, or more than one-fifth its entire budget, due to the state’s more lucrative tax incentives. Montana, which gives production companies a 12-percent rebate on all Montana labor hired for a shoot and an 8-percent rebate on all production-related Montana expenditures, would save Fairplay just $200,000. Antonelli offers up the figures, but then explains that his job is not always as easy as reading a spreadsheet.

“The numbers can be deceiving,” he explains. “In South Carolina we get more money based on the budget…but, for instance, in Charlston in August it’s hurricane season. Our production insurance and our bond guarantee are 10 times higher there. Also, in June, July and August in South Carolina, it rains an average of 6 inches per month, and our shoot is primarily an outdoor shoot. So this isn’t simply a case of here’s a number and can you match it. It’s so easy to focus on the numbers, but in our case there truly are multiple factors going on here. That gap, on paper, can change in a heartbeat.”

To help find ways to close the $550,000 gap between incentive savings offered by South Carolina and Montana, Antonelli and director Caroline Zelder, who have been working with Montana’s Film Office for months to explore different filming options in the state, met with Gov. Schweitzer the first week of May. In that hour-long meeting Schweitzer said his staff would do everything it could to close the deal, even raising the possibility, according to the Associated Press, of lending state-owned vehicles to the filmmakers, or having some of the state’s part-time Californians volunteer to fly the cast out for free.

“It didn’t end up coming to that,” says Sarah Elliott, spokesperson for the governor’s office. “Other states offered more attractive film incentives, but ultimately they decided Montana was simply a better place to film.”

Sten Iversen, the Montana Film Office manager who worked closely with Fairplay to bring the production to Montana, adds: “We did not bridge the entire [$550,000] gap, not by any means. But what I think they were able to see was that the entire state of Montana was behind this production, and we were able to offer other things that made it attractive.”

Among those “other things” were fee-free filming locations in Bozeman and Livingston (agreed to by local leaders in those cities), paid advertisements for the state’s tourism portals (to be included in the film’s credits), a local crew and work force qualified to work on the production, and what Antonelli calls “a better creative environment,” which includes everything from the advantageous weather to the fact the story itself is set in Montana (“The Happy Herb and Froggy Doo Show” was a local broadcasting staple during its era, and Happy Herb, who’ll have a cameo appearance in the film, still resides in the Flathead Valley.)

“We all recognize this is a Montana film,” says Antonelli. “The film commission and the governor have been very proactive and cooperative from the start, and not all states are like that. You can’t undervalue or underestimate the importance of that.”

The Film Office will continue working with Fairplay during the eight weeks of preproduction and throughout seven weeks of actual filming, which is scheduled to begin in July. Part of the office’s role as Fairplay’s liaison to the state is to help coordinate product placement and sponsorship opportunities, a new venture for the office.

In an e-mail distributed by Iversen a week before Fairplay announced it would film in Montana, he solicited local businesses to pay a fee to have their products appear in the film. “They are casting fairly big names in the film, so there is a potential for the products to be seen by millions if the film does really well,” Iversen wrote, “however the downside is that there is no way to tell how widely viewed the film will eventually be.” The attached list suggested sponsorship opportunities for products as varied as alcohol, telephone service, sneakers and blue jeans.

“If it makes sense for the business having a big-name Hollywood actor using their product or wearing their product,” says Iversen, “and they think it’s something that could get exposure, then it’s good advertising dollars spent.”

Antonelli will not divulge which if any “big names” have signed onto the project. He does explain that the main characters are two 12-year-olds and a 6-year-old. When Froggy Doo disappears from a live show in Billings, and J. Edgar Hoover sends two FBI agents to investigate—both true events—the three children set out to beat the investigators to the kidnappers and collect the reward money. Antonelli says the film begins in the present day, with one of the children recalling the Froggy Doo escapade as an adult, and hints that the adult will be a recognizable star, “like Richard Dreyfuss in Stand By Me.”

Ultimately, however, the cachet of the movie’s stars and the movie’s potential box-office profile are only added value; the majority of the economic impact occurs during filming. Antonelli predicts that 30 of the 40-person cast will come from Montana, along with “the vast majority of the crew,” and that $2.5 million of the budget will be spent in-state.

“The money spent bringing them here is pennies on the dollar compared to the economic impact” of having the production film here, says Iversen, whose office currently attracts between $5 and $10 million in film-oriented revenues annually to the state. “For every dollar we spend we count $10 back in economic impact…Say we spent $10,000 to bring this film to Montana—what you’re looking at is setting up a small factory where they’re expecting to spend around $2.5 million on jobs and local goods and services, such as lumber for sets, hotel rooms, restaurants and the things you would never even think of, like porta-potty rentals. It’s new money we would’ve never seen otherwise, and without any impact on our infrastructure.”

Which is exactly why Schweitzer proposed “The Big Sky on the Big Screen Act,” and why Elliott says the governor will “play the deal-closer role” whenever he can to bring more film production to Montana.

“As a producer, I can tell you that anything with a $3.5 million budget in the grand scheme of things is a very small film,” says Antonelli. “But for Montana, I think it’s a big film and, as a family film, it has the potential to be a high-profile film…It’s a good partnership, and we’re excited to be able to bring Froggy Doo back home.”

arts@missoulanews.com

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