Funding woes still haunt film offices

Recession still lingers. Film commission budgets are receiving the once-over from cash-strapped legislatures. There’s a new president in the White House. And technological advancements promise to transform the entertainment industry, placing new demands on its practitioners.

These are some top-of-mind concerns of executives from film commissions around the nation and the globe gathering for the eighth annual Location Expo, Feb. 27 through March 1 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

The 190 film commissions participating in this trade show, dedicated to film and TV production services, represent a 10% rise from the 173, who turned out last year.

This go-round, there are 41 international commissions, representing 19 foreign countries, compared to 32 and 17 in 1992. Noteworthy newcomers include two former Eastern bloc nations, Poland and Russia.

The American Film Market, staging its 13th annual confab at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, is producing Location Expo for the Association of Film Commissioners International.

Like last year, hard times continue to put pressure on film commission budgets. Although there are signs the economy is recovering from this deep trough, many film commissioners report their budgets sliced or stagnant. But even so, the number of new government bureaus designed to lure film units into their communities continues to grow.

AFCI president Leigh von der Esch, also exec director of the Utah Film Commission, noted that in the last six months, at least 24 new film commissions have come into being. They have arisen in such diverse locales as Moscow, South Dakota’s Badlands, Temecula, Calif., and Bogota, Colombia.

The reason? It all comes down to money.

While such government bureaus aren’t vital, the way fire, police, or libraries are, the work they do has proven its worth, according to proponents.

There’s little doubt that film production provides an economic stimulus, offering work to local businesses: from hotels, to caterers, to supermarkets and dry cleaners. Plus, there are few environmental consequences, and incalculable benefits to tourism.

South Carolina Film Office director Isabel Hill reports that tourism took a significant uptick after the release of “The Prince of Tides,” the 1991 Barbra Streisand-starrer that displayed that state’s pristine shores to great advantage.

But with the rising number of film commissions around the United States and the rest of the world, the job of luring production to states, counties and cities has be-come that much tougher. It is prompting some regions to step up marketing programs, or in some cases, offer special incentives, such as tax waivers, to enrich their appeal.

But it’s hard for governments to take these steps when grappling with budget shortfalls in this tight economy.

“With state budget crises, programs to promote tourism or economic development become prime targets (for cuts),” says Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles.

“Our main concern is the funding,” says Julie Armstrong, executive director of the Monterey (California) County Film Commission. “Every year, we don’t know what our budget will be. It’s hard to plan.”

The Louisiana legislature slashed the $ 32,000 advertising budget of the Louisiana Film Commission a year ago, and is looking for more places to cut at this time, because of that state’s $ 700 million budgetary shortfall, says director George Steiner.

Von der Esch insists she cannot generalize about the status of film commission budgets in recent months. Some took some financial hits because of budgetary pressures. But some have been spared the knife–a reflection of growing understanding of the productive role these commissions play, according to von der Esch.

Part of the credit may go to the AFCI, which has spread the gospel of the benefits of location filming to government leaders. Representatives of the trade group have attended conferences and participated in panels of the National Council of State Legislators and the International City Managers Assn., for example.

While film commissions able to escape cuts in these troubled times should consider themselves fortunate, some still complain they’re losing ground. No increase amid the rising clatter of competition means falling behind, they say.

South Dakota Film Office coordinator Gary Keller says the agency’s $ 60,000 operating budget has been spared, but he’s concerned about the growing challenge of making Hollywood aware of South Dakota with its relatively modest resources.

“The challenge is showing what you have that’s different from the 10 other states around you,” says Keller.

Some states, such as Florida,have been particularly aggressive in efforts to lure location filming. For the past four or five years, the state has been offering sales tax rebates to producers who shoot in Florida.

And in one of its most unusual developments yet, Florida has set up a new fund that will grant producers who shoot within its borders access to print and advertising funding.

Some rivals are skeptical that the money will actually materialize, but Florida officials say they expect to begin accepting applications for the marketing bucks on July 1.

Sources in the locations industry say nearly all governments are considering or have considered such incentives, but many doubt a trend is in the works because of current financial pressures.

“So many states are in a budget crunch,” says South Carolina’s Hill. “They’re so strapped, they’re looking wherever they can for income.”

John Reitzammer, Florida’s commissioner of film and television, says Florida has been successful passing its programs because it has truly convinced government leaders of the economic value of location filming.

“People talk about it, but we’ve actually done it here,” claims Reitzammer.

The Florida Dept. of Commerce is setting up a public/private partnership in an effort to stimulate more production activity. The state will pick up some of the tab of this new entity called Entertainment Florida, but private companies with much to gain from location filming–purveyors of lumber, telephone services and eating establishments, for example–will lend financial suport too.

For their contribution, the private supporters will have some say in Entertainment Florida’s organizational policies and operations.

Florida has also taken steps to make the most out of its resources. It recently formed a Florida Film Commissioners Assn., a new group made up of the state’s estimated 40 film bureau heads, under the philosophy that working together will ultimately bring more business to the sunshine state.

“You don’t win by beating up on another location,” says Chuck Elderd, Florida Film Commission president and director of Palm Beach’s film location office.

While film commissioners’ main concerns center on their own regional agendas, there are also national issues on their minds. High on the list are the policies of the new Clinton administration.

President Clinton was an aggressive proponent of location filming in Arkansas while he was governor, but what will his administration’s policies be now that he occupies the Oval Office?

Vice president Albert Gore is a fierce advocate of environmental protections. Some in the locationsindustry fear the new administration may eventually restrict filming on public lands, or make the permitting process so cumbersome as to discourage producers from using such locales. Also, vast areas of land, particularly in the western United States, are under consideration for designation as wilderness or wilderness study areas. If these lands receive such designations, it’s possible location filming, with the exception of filming that can be done with hand-held cameras, could be banned outright.

She says the AFCI has made preliminary contact with officials in the Dept. of Interior and the Dept. of Agriculture, which oversee Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service issues, to set up a dialog.

Bill Lindstrom, manager of the Wyoming Film Office, says location filming in Wyoming–public lands comprise 50% of the state–has been sliding for the past two-to-three years. He attributes the trend to the poor economy and growing competition from other regions, particularly from the southern United States, which has the natural advantage of offering year-round mild weather.

He’s concerned Clinton’s administration policies may make his challenge that much tougher. At present, local authorities have the primary authority over local filming, and that suits Lindstrom.

One “Friend of Bill, ” Arkansas Motion Picture Development Office director William Buck, points out that Clinton was a staunch believer in the benefits of location filming during his period as Arkansas’ chief executive.

Buck recalled that during Clinton’s tenure, a production company shot rockets into the state capitol in Little Rock for an NBC special event depicting a terrorist attack on Washington, D.C.

The producers received the necessary approvals to stage the elaborate special effects within two hours after their arrival at the Little Rock Municipal Airport. Buck says this was done at the direction of Clinton’s office and Secretary of State Bill McCuen.

According to Buck, Clinton was also the key in setting up a rebate program–a program that dispenses a 5% give-back on all expenditures incurred by production companies during filming in Arkansas–as an incentive.

Von der Esch sees this as a good sign. “It’s a demonstration that he (Clinton) was on the cutting edge of programs that would create economic stimulus,” she says.

In addition to the everyday responsibilities of film commissions–devising marketing programs to lure location filming, then having systems in place to meet the needs of producers once they’re there–film commissions will also need to come to grips with the impact of new technologies in entertainment.

Not only are the prospects for a 500-channel universe looming, but new interactive technologies and virtual reality may transform the way the world receives programming and the content of what it views. Exactly how that will affect the way film commissions do their jobs is unclear at this time, but changes will surely take place.

“A key issue is where the entertainment industry is going to be in the next 15 years,” says Arkansas’ Buck. “We hope to be at the forefront there.”

At present, some film commissioners are becoming aware of new information technologies with the potential to enhance the way they sell their locations to producers. Von der Esch speaks of adopting new digital technologies by which photographs can be scanned into a computer so they can be called up on a screen.

“We hope to have a program where you can take a 40-picture tour of Arkansas at your desk by looking at photo images through a computer, instead of a book.”

Von der Esch has a proposal before the Utah legislature asking for $ 50,000 in funding to invest in such a system.

So, as location industry exex stroll about the 27,000-square-foot hall of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the challenges loom. Professionalism in the business of attracting location filming may be growing, but so is the level of competition.

“There’s no doubt about it, our jobs are getting tougher,” concludes one film bureau head.

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