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Will work for film

Chasing Montana’s big break with tax breaks

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On July 28, a group of 27 motion picture industry insiders will gather in Bozeman for the first-ever meeting of the newly formed Montana Film and Television Advisory Council. Their main agenda: figure out how to promote Montana as a premier backdrop for film and television productions and lure Hollywood’s deep pockets to the state.

Earlier this year the state Legislature passed the “Big Sky on the Big Screen Act,” a tax incentive package designed to encourage film production in Montana. The measure gives production companies a 12 percent incentive rebate on all Montana labor hired for film production and an eight percent rebate on all production-related Montana expenditures including lodging, equipment rental, fuel, lumber and construction materials.

The Canadian government has offered tax breaks and subsidies to the movie industry for nearly 30 years. That, combined with favorable exchange rates and superb shooting locations, has resulted in the outsourcing of American television and movie production to our neighbor to the north. As a result, states around the country are trying to entice production back to their own backyards with incentive packages similar to Montana’s.

Now that Montana has eased taxes on filmmaking, the next step is to get the word out that Montana is a competitive place to make movies, says freelance line producer and advisory council member Christopher Cronyn, of Missoula.

“Okay, we have this legislation now, but the devil is in the details,” says Cronyn, who has worked on feature films including Heat and The Slaughter Rule. “Now, how do we translate the details of the legislation so that producers and staff understand exactly what they have to do in order to access the tax incentive so that they make the decision to film in Montana?”

One of the challenges for the film council will be to figure that out and communicate the answer to their associates in Hollywood.

“These are Montana’s film ambassadors,” says Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who nominated the film council’s members in June. “They will advise me on things we might want to do to attract filmmakers. They will be there for us personally when we need to reach out to people in the film industry. They will help us close deals. If we have a producer, and he’s comparing the options of filming in Utah, Alberta or Montana, and they’re going to make a decision next Tuesday, then on Monday, we’ll fly down or meet them someplace and we’ll close the deal.”

Schweitzer says he considered the connections as well as the qualifications of the 75 or so applicants who sought council seats when making his appointments.

“These are people who speak the film language and know the people who make decisions in Hollywood,” says Schweitzer. “They are passionate about the film industry and they are passionate about Montana.”

The list of Montana’s new “film ambassadors” includes producers, industry consultants, actors, directors and screenwriters, among other occupations.

Livingston actress Margot Kidder, of Superman fame, says she hopes her name recognition and inside knowledge of the film industry will prove an asset to the council. Kidder, a Canadian born and raised, says she was involved early on in the Canadian movement to encourage filmmaking in that country.

“I’m very savvy as to what [Canada] did in terms of tax incentives when there was no business there at all,” says Kidder.

Kidder has spent the last decade in Livingston and expects to earn her United States citizenship next month. She says she’s now a “hard-core” Montanan who wants to see her state’s movie industry grow.

“I care deeply that Montana not get ruined by logging, mining and unplanned development,” says Kidder. “A lot of money gets spent and wasted in Hollywood. I want some of that to come here where we can plow it back into Montana’s economy. Moviemaking is a sustainable industry.”

Filmmaking has become a boon to the state of Louisiana, where the state has seen a nearly 2,000-percent increase in filmmaking revenues since the state passed incentive measures in 2002.

Alex Schott, director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Film and Television Development, says his state has seen unprecedented film business growth thanks to its legislation.

“During first full year after the incentives were implemented we went from about $20 million per year in filmmaking to $200 million,” says Schott. “Once the word got out that Louisiana was a viable place for production, we started to see a constant flow of TV movies, which are very important to the lifeblood of a growing production hub.”

By 2004 over $370 million was spent on filmmaking in Louisiana. This year, the Louisiana Film Commission expects filmmakers will spend more than $400 million. Schott says the exponential increase in out-of-state spending by filmmakers has reverberating impacts on the state’s economy.

“The immediate impact is that service industries have grown up to support this industry,” says Schott.

He adds that prior to the incentives, the state was losing home-grown workers who couldn’t find quality, high-paying jobs in the state. Now, with the film industry in growth mode, some of those workers are moving back to the state and the industry is attracting new talent.

“We’re getting people to move back home where they’re more inclined to work on these films that have high-paying jobs with great benefits,” says Schott. “It’s a great opportunity for people to come back home. I don’t think anybody had any idea of the impact the incentives would have.”

Schweitzer says Montana’s incentive package isn’t as sweet as some other states’ or those found in Canada, but he says under the new legislation, Montana will become a viable location for filming.

“We are finally in the game. Do I know that we’re going to lead all the other states? I can’t tell you that, but we’re finally in the game,” says Schweitzer. “During the last 10 years we weren’t in the game, we were on the outside looking in. Now we’re going to be competitive.”

jadams@missoulanews.com

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