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Iowa Film Industry - Are Incentives Working? (Discussion)

posted on May 12, 2008 at 4:54 PM


Tourism may well be a downstream benefit of more filmmaking in the state. “The Field of Dreams” and “Bridges of Madison County” still bring in visitors by the busload.

But standing in the way is the issue of whether the state can handle all the activity the tax breaks promise to deliver. If it can’t, the business may well go elsewhere, no matter how generous the incentives.

How can Iowa build such a work force? What will it cost? And who will be in charge of its development are questions in play if the state is to add film making to its economic mix?

Here to address these questions are Tom Wheeler, Director ofIowa Film Board and Kent Newman, President of the Iowa Motion Picture Association.

Yeager: Gentlemen, welcome to the program. Let's do a good picture. Let's take the Hollywood approach and paint the Iowa film picture for me. What does the Iowa film scene look like right now, Kent?

Newman: Well, currently I'm actually working as location manager on "South Dakota" which was briefly profiled. This production is spending about $3 million in Iowa. We're shooting 25 days.

The production office opened way back in early March for the pre-production phase. We started shooting actually a week in Philadelphia and New York in mid-April and started shooting in Iowa April 17th. We have two more days of shooting, tomorrow and Wednesday, and then we wrap.

There is a second film called "Peacock" that you mentioned as well that started shooting last week and I believe they are scheduled to shoot 24 days in Iowa, spend about $6 million. And these are just the first two that have qualified this year.

Yeager: So, it sounds like a good picture. Would you agree with that, Tom?

Wheeler: Yeah, it's an absolutely great picture and what Kent has talked about there is what's going on and it is certainly a case of projects giving us a second look and in some cases a first look in terms of why they would want to come here. In the past for any jurisdiction would have been the locations because it was appropriate to the script.

The second consideration would be the infrastructure well. Now it's the incentive game and we are quietly leading that game although other states like to toot their horn that they are instead.

Yeager: So, incentives really has made the biggest different initially, or I should say in this stage of the game.

Kent: Absolutely.

Yeager: You wouldn't have gotten this far without incentives?

Wheeler: Unfortunately that's the truth of the business these days is the fact that it is a business and producers have to take into consideration all the ways in which they can reduce their costs. And when a state steps up to say they'll help them to reduce that number at the bottom line the producer can't refuse it.

Yeager: In dealing with the "South Dakota" folks, the movie is called "South Dakota", why did they not go to South Dakota? Why did they come to Iowa? Was it incentives?

Newman: Absolutely and the same for "Peacock". Iowa basically has a 50% tax credit. We have a 25% investment tax credit, 25% production expense credit for what we call the Iowa spend, the money that is actually spent in the state.

The third part for native Iowans like me that work on these projects is that our wages or our day rates are exempt from Iowa income tax. So, this was specifically designed to really jump start the industry but also try to make sure we employ as many Iowans as possible.

Yeager: Or keep Iowans here or get Iowans to come back.

Newman: Attract and retain.

Yeager: Do you know any other Iowans that have maybe come back to take advantage of this or at least with production or to get involved on another production?

Newman: Absolutely, we've got several people working on "South Dakota" who have experience working in LA, New York, they had Iowa connections or Iowa roots, heard about the incentives and thought they'd come back and try it. And I believe that they're going to be sticking around.

In addition we've attracted some other people. I have an assistant who came over from Nebraska. Another thing, we mentioned workforce and the importance of crew, the incentives are going to bring people here because that is their financial bottom line.

We also need the workforce and the production infrastructure, the business infrastructure of all the other vendors and resource providers and because we were concerned about that we applied for and received a $50,000 targeted industries grant from the Department of Economic Development this year to do workforce training.

So, the Iowa Motion Picture Association worked with our own members internally and Iowa One Source Training which is through the community colleges that delivers what they call custom training to do five weekend Grip 101 training sessions in March and April all of which were sold out. So, we have now trained over 125 people already this year and many of those people are already working on "South Dakota" and "Peacock".

Yeager: Is that kind of like an entry level position of sorts to kind of get experience on the set, hanging the light or seeing how the light is hung or seeing how the boom is put up or the microphone or the camera, and that gets them to the next stage? Is that the important reason for starting at that ground level?

Newman: Absolutely. We called it Grip 101 because the grip position are really the worker bees of any kind of a production who understand all the equipment that is on the grip truck, the electric truck, bring it out, set it up, move it from one set up to the next depending on the scenes of the production.

It also would prepare someone to be a production assistant because we really talked a lot about the various positions and departments that are involved particularly in a feature film and there are also some union issues that people are learning about. So, we actually partnered with the stagehands union, it's called IATSE.

There are several locals in Iowa typically that do stage shows so here in Des Moines the Convention Center is an IA signatory. We offered an incentive for their members to participate in the training as well as IMPA members by waiving the registration fee.

Yeager: I want to get back to the union thing in a little bit but Tom, would you have a hard time answering questions from potential filmmakers if the crew wasn't here or the infrastructure wasn't there? Would you have enough workers before these Grip 101 classes were done?

Wheeler: It's a little bit of a split kind of answer because we have sufficient quantity of people, problem is we also have a sufficient quantity of ongoing business that takes many of them out of that pool at any given time when a feature comes.

They need so many people, they effectively need most of the available workforce. Well, at least half of those folks are periodically involved in commercial production.

And the reason why it's kind of a split type answer is because the program does allow for a local service provider to bring in out-of-state goods, services and labor so that, for example, Kent could act as an agent for the producer to bring in those out-of-state folks.

So, that was designed into the program because we knew that we simply didn't have enough crew and infrastructure in general to handle two projects simultaneously if we were to be so fortunate. Well, we are, right now.

The "South Dakota" and "Peacock" are overlapping and that was a bit of a problem and so that provision in the program alleviated that and it has given a rise to a lot of those folks that Kent was talking about either coming back to Iowa or some of the folks in a border state saying, well I can maybe move on the other side of the border or come over more frequently and make myself available. So, it really has kind of balanced itself out at this point.

Yeager: Will you have to do those classes again next spring or another time of year you're going to have to have something in the fall to be able to help build that stock?

Newman: We'll be watching this very carefully to see what other gaps we have in specific crafts or specific departments. A feature project like this has anywhere from 75 to 100 people on the crew every day. So, we've got a whole wardrobe department, make-up and hair. "South Dakota" is using a lot of what we call background extras, all the people in the crowd. That is a huge enterprise to recruit all those people and try to reward them somehow to get them to show up maybe not just once buy maybe twice.

Yeager: And it might be eight hour days or ten hour days?

Newman: Or twelve hour days.

Yeager: Are those the gaps that you're talking about or where are the gaps at?

Newman: Those I think are fairly typical with any film, it just takes a lot of work. I think the gaps are in more of the technical trades, grip and electric, people that really have the experience you need, the scale of equipment that we're using on projects like this. We were able to recruit local truck drivers with Teamsters affiliation which is pretty standard on projects like this.

And then in the case of "South Dakota" we have what are child actors, they're teenagers but there are very strict regulations governing how many hours a day they can work and they have to be in school every day. So, we have to have a certified teacher on the set every day and have a classroom available as well.

Yeager: So, the classes, the grip classes were done at a community college. Is that where you think you're going to have to continue to go to do those instructions? Or do you think on the university level whether it's the University of Iowa or Iowa State or UNI? Iowa has a film department. What type of roles could they fill or are you going to have to stick with the community college? It has a history of quickly turning around a trade that is needed.

Newman: Well, the Iowa Motion Picture Association, our board of directors did a strategic planning process last year. One of our goals is to interface better with the colleges and universities in Iowa that have film, video, television production curriculum. It seems that most of these don't interface very well with the real world. Probably the best ones that do are the ones that are teaching television production.

But it's the other things, film program is often very theoretical, it is film theory, it's not a lot of hands on stuff which is what we really focused on with the Grip 101 training. We do want to connect with them better and provide more learning opportunities. We have more and more student IMPA members every year. We have several of our board members are faculty at these institutions and so we're working with the Iowa College Media Association to try to do a better job of engaging not only the faculty but especially the students because they are very motivated.

Yeager: Can keep an eye out for a student, oh if you're really interested in film I have a position for you to do. So, we have incentives, Tom. Right now we really haven't had to put a lot of money out. It's credits for what is already earned. Who is going to have to pay for the next stage of this if we have to do more incentives or more training? Who picks up the bill next?

Wheeler: Well, unfortunately that is the $64,000 question. The IMPA was able to receive some money from the Department of Economic Development to put on the Grip 101 course and those monies were needed for the real world cost of putting on real professional training.

I think we have the proof, we have the positive results of that, we have the desire for more projects to come into the state and I think those are some of the ingredients that we'll need to -- possibly the community colleges, possibly other industry contributors providing some of that money to continue this process.

It's kind of sad, we were tapping into some of the pre-existing programs and so it makes it obviously just easier to get the job done but we don't have to reinvent the wheel by doing that. And it also has the additional benefit of invigorating either a program that is currently in use by those schools or reinvigorating the idea of bringing one back that maybe has been dormant.

The University of Iowa has their film studies program which is more theory based but this activity in the state and in particular the connection that the students can make to it is something that is very intriguing to them. But almost in their words they're kind of a battleship that has a bit of trouble slowing down its curriculum and everything it has invested into that to go into more of a practical application process.

And so if there is a bridge where they can work with the community college system or directly with IMPA then it makes it a lot easier and I think those will be some of the lures that, I'm hoping will be the lures that bring some of the folks to the forward who are willing to help put something together on a more regular basis.

Yeager: Because things are changing so quickly. We just did this topic six months ago and things are dramatically different on this industry in the state. You probably can't wait for the legislature to go back in session in January. So, is that going to have to be more money out of the economic development budget to push some of that? Do you think that is where that's coming from since that's where your office is now?

Wheeler: Well, for me, in the Film Office there are a variety of things that I can do and there are a variety of things that are sometimes better handled by a group like the Iowa Motion Picture Association or maybe a larger group throughout the state.

There is also the Iowa Scriptwriters Alliance, the Iowa Digital Filmmakers Guild, the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts where it is possible to bring them together and many of them are on the IMPA board and that gives an outside group that has more flexibility the ability to address these things in a more rapid fashion.

And the other point of emphasis from within the state or in the Film Office is that as one individual I have quite a bit of responsibility for handling the incentive process itself. So, to put my educator hat on with Kent might not be the best course of action. It's in the air.

We do have a little bit of time to determine exactly what we need to do because we've already proven that we need to add people. Once we've gotten to that point we can pick the best path for actually getting there.

Yeager: We're already under a minute. Kent, it looks like you want to respond to that.

Newman: Well, I would say from our standpoint we would like to see at least a couple of people in the Iowa Film Office. Tom needs help there. We'd like to see additional resources maybe shifted within the Department of Economic Development closer to what it was ten years ago where they had three full-time equivalents and a higher budget. We definitely need that.

I want to mention that we've also begun a pilot program of regional business planning that we did in Fairfield in southeast Iowa back in February engaging community leaders, civic leaders to raise awareness about the incentives -- they are going to be bringing all kinds of production to Iowa -- what community need to know to work with location productions when they come there and Tom has put together a guide to camera ready communities so we're collaborating to try to do more outreach to communities and we have a new membership category in the Iowa Motion Picture Association for cities, economic development groups and convention and visitors bureaus.

Yeager: Very good. Two word answer, can Iowa be like the British Columbia or the Toronto of the film industry in five years?

Wheeler: More so.

Yeager: More so.

Newman: Absolutely.

Yeager: I appreciate you coming in today, Tom Wheeler and Kent Newman, thank you very much for our conversation.

Tags: economy filmmaking films industry Iowa politics taxes

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