In the last few years, state tax credits for film and TV have transformed the way producers plot out their pics. Lousiana, New Mexico, South Carolina, Montana, New York — almost every state on the Union offers something to visiting productions. So how does a state film commission stand out in the crowd?
Pennsylvania saw an opportunity in 2003: “Film commissioners were complaining about runaway production and Toronto was kicking our butt,” says Greater Philadelphia Film Office executive director Sharon Pinkenson. “We were losing Philadelphia stories to Toronto, which was devastating.”
Pinkenson studied Canadian incentives, and, with the help of then-Philadelphia mayor and now Gov. Ed Rendell (“We really do have a governor who understands economic development — he really gets it,” says Pinkenson) and other key lawmakers, the state legislature in July 2004 passed a tax credit program.
So the Keystone State early on had incentives — it seemed like an easy sell.
“When it first passed, it was a huge news story, and we worked with newspapers and public relations companies,” says Pennsylvania Film Office director Jane Saul. Some big filmmakers, like the Philadelphia’s most famous helmer, M. Night Shyamalan, always shoot in state — “Having him make films in Pennsylvania is our best advertisement,” says Saul. Jonathan Demme is a fan too. Indie producer Lee Daniels also likes to shoot in Philly. But what about informing filmmakers beyond the reach of the Philadelphia Inquirer?
Guerrilla warfare and billboards.
“We had billboards on Santa Monica Boulevard (in West Hollywood) that attracted a lot of attention,” says Saul. “We had a huge ad blast at Sundance.”
Indeed, the Film in Pa contingent used small stuff — hangers touting the state on every hotel and condo doorknob, people handing out hot chocolate wearing Film in Pa signboards — “but it cut through the clutter. Unfortunately, marketing budgets were cut, but we are doing more guerrilla marketing, trying to connect with the customer through different mediums,” says Saul.
Hitting major film festivals and making connections with filmmakers is standard as well. And so is an upbeat, almost evangelical attitude about selling the state.
Political pundit James Carville once said that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. While that sums up the red-state-in-a-blue-state affairs of local politics in a not so complimentary way, Saul sees it as a selling point: “When we field phone calls from producers, it’s important that we sell the things we have that others don’t: the vast landscapes, the cities, Lancaster county, the natural assets. You can do country, urban, suburban, and we’re close by New York City and other cities.”
The preaching has paid off. In 2002, the economic impact of filming in the state was $93 million. In 2004, the first year of the tax credit, it jumped to $218 million, and in 2005 hit $249 million. That’s a lot of cheesesteaks.
Success has gone to Pennsylvania’s head, as two more regional film offices have opened: in Lancaster and Scranton, best known as the home town of NBC’s “The Office.”
Paige Balitski, exec director of the Greater Scranton Film Office, is also quite evangelical in her pitch. “Nothing’s expensive here; everyone wants to play. The first big moviemaker that comes here — boy, are they going to be treated like royalty.”
No big Hollywood productions have ventured upstate yet, but the area is busy, says Balitski, with TV docs and commercials. There’s even talk that “The Office” will do an episode around Scranton’s St. Patrick’s Day parade next year.
How does the state keep up the momentum? “It’s no longer Pennsylvania on the short list, it’s Pennsylvania on a growing list,” says Saul, whose enthusiastic attitude, like Pinkenson’s, is hard to resist. “In addition to educating people about our programs, attributes and attractions, it’s also tapping into old friends. We call it six degrees of separation from Pennsylvania,” says Saul.
“The answer is to provide services on a level that no one else can provide. If you come to Philadelphia, you’re getting access to a free government-owned soundstage, free police service, free production office … you can’t beat the service, and it’s all about repeat business,” says Pinkenson.