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Hawaii Battles for Film Production With Incentives

Hawaii competes with other tropical locales with incentives

“Godzilla” paid a visit to Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach on the island of Oahu in early July, strewing thousands of cubic yards of debris across the sand, from large chunks of cement and bricks (carved from foam) to sinks and bathroom fixtures. Less than 30 hours after production wrapped, all visible evidence of the Legendary Pictures/Warner Bros. reboot — set to open May 16 — had been removed from the area, but Hawaii state film commissioner Donne Dawson says its impact will be felt long after, and not just from the economic ripple effect of the tens of millions in production dollars spent.

“It becomes the latest calling card for Hawaii and it gives us bragging rights in terms of our ability as a production center to handle a film of that magnitude,” Dawson says.

Since enacting a 15%-20% tax credit in 2006, Hawaii has attracted a string of high profile productions, including “Tropic Thunder,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “Battleship,” “The Descendents” and CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0,” which recently began productions on its fourth season.

But with other tropical locales such as the Dominican Republic, Malaysia and Fiji establishing generous incentives, and Puerto Rico juicing its own last year with an added a 20% credit for above-the-line talent, Hawaii was losing its competitive edge. So earlier this year the state Legislature enacted a new law, effective July 1 and retroactive to Jan. 1, bumping the tax credit 5% across the board to 20% for shoots on Oahu, which hosts the bulk of production, and 25% on the neighboring islands, and extending credit’s sunset date from 2015 to 2019.

“The timing of the increase was very opportune,” says Honolulu Film Office commissioner Walea Constantinau. “It allowed shows that were either on the fence or needed a little bit more to come to the island.”

That includes a trio of features coming this fall: Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes,” Angelina Jolie-directed “Unbroken,” and writer-director Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy “Deep Tiki,” starring Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams and Bradley Cooper.

“Godzilla” made the decision to come to Hawaii in November, before the improved incentive was approved. Although several set pieces in the film were scripted for Hawaii, producers considered raining destruction on other seemingly cheaper tropical locales, including Puerto Rico, which offers a 40% tax credit. But in the end it was decided that shooting the scenes elsewhere would be penny wise and pound foolish.

Hawaiian production happens to be marking two major milestones in 2013. This year is the 100th anniversary of film production on the Hawaiian Islands. It also happens to be the 20th anniversary of the filming of the landmark blockbuster “Jurassic Park” on Kauai, the Garden Island, which is planning its own series of celebrations and festivities in October. Like all island production, shooting on Hawaii has pros and cons. “Because you’re thousands of miles away from the mainland, a lot of materials are more expensive, and the cost of living is high, so there’s that downside,” says the film’s location manager Mike Fantasia. “But if your show requires ocean, beaches, jungle and beautiful mountains, you get incredible bounty in those areas.”

Crew capability — an area in which Hawaii excels — is another consideration. “We could pretty much count on being able to get quality crew people when we got here,” Fantasia adds. That’s not something that can be said of most runaway production destinations.

Historically, one of the downsides to shooting in Hawaii has been the dearth of soundstages. Until now, the state’s only major production facility has been Hawaii Film Studio at Diamond Head, where “Hawaii Five-0” now shoots.

The state recently approved $250,000 for a feasibility study for a new studio. In the meantime, two new soundstage complexes are set to open on neighbor islands.

The first is Maui Film Studios, featuring five soundstages, the largest topping out at 22,000 sq. ft. Maui County film commissioner Harry Donenfeld characterizes it as a “moderate-sized” facility, perfect for TV production and mid-size features.

Over on the Big Island, construction is under way on Lokahi Studios at the U. of Nations campus in Kona. Due to be completed late this year, its centerpiece will be  the Transmedia Center, a 30,000-sq. ft. facility featuring sound-recording studios, soundproof practice rooms, greenscreen, motion-capture stages and multiple edit bays. The complex will also boast a broadcasting studio, a chamber concert hall, a 600-seat cinema, and a multipurpose facility containing two studio shells that can serve as soundstages or live performance venues.

“We’re going to be able to say we’ve got the largest film complex in the state,” says Big Island Film Office commissioner John Mason. “It’s going to change the game here.”

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