Washington Governor Jay Inslee poses with zombie extras on the set of Z Nation during a recent visit to Spokane.
By George Riddell Editor
Currently, the state of Washington is one of 38 states offering film production incentives. Qualifying feature films, episodic TV series and commercials can receive rebates of as much as 35 percent of their in-state expenditures. However, with an annual cap of just $3.5 million, Washington’s incentive is one of the smallest in the country, and can’t realistically compete against states with much larger caps (or no cap in many states).
This year in late April, before the popular summer shooting season even began, Washington Filmworks, which oversees the state’s film production incentive program, announced that after just four months, the state’s entire allotment of funds available as production incentives for feature films and TV series had been exhausted. The cap had been met.
Washington Filmworks reached the cap for the most part because of two major summer production projects: Z Nation, a 13-episode TV series for Syfy network shot this summer in Eastern Washington, and Captain Fantastic, a feature film shot this summer in Western Washington, starring Viggo Mortenson.
Over the next several weeks, Amy Lillard, executive director of Washington Filmworks, watched in frustration as multiple projects that she had been courting to shoot in Washington chose locations in other states, where production incentive money was available.
“After we announced we were out of funds, Washington Filmworks continued to receive calls daily from greenlit projects that were ready to hit the ground running in Washington State,” she said. Lillard estimated that “these projects would have had an estimated $55 million of economic impact over the summer months.” The impact is felt in the form of jobs for local actors, film crewmembers, hotel rooms, catering companies, restaurants, rental companies and many other businesses that support the film industry, both directly and indirectly. And she said there has likely been more business lost, as well.
Z Nation and Captain Fantastic provide strong examples of the benefits these productions can provide to the Washington film industry and the state’s general economy. These two projects alone employed hundreds of workers this summer. Filmworks estimates that Z Nation provided more than 12,000 worker days to Washington cast and crew during its summer shooting schedule, while Captain Fantastic was expected to employ more than 350 Washington residents.
But Lillard sees the potential for much more: “We need to grow the incentive program to keep up with demand.”
The demand to shoot in Washington is clearly plentiful among filmmakers, but the competition among states that offer cash-back incentives to producers is very high. Lillard knows the key to being more competitive is raising the state’s cap. So, while the legislation that created the current incentive program is scheduled to remain in place until 2017, Washington Filmworks is acting now to start the wheels of change moving towards increasing the state’s cap before the current sunset period.
Their first order of business was to form an Advocacy Committee, headed by James Keblas, former director of the Seattle Office of Film + Music and now president of Seattle advertising agency Creature, and entertainment attorney and longtime Northwest film advocate Lance Rosen. Rosen and Keblas will work with Lillard to connect with legislators across the state, and work towards a new solution that will make Washington more competitive in the film incentive marketplace.
Douglas Horn and James Keblas celebrate as they make the first contributions to WAfilmPAC.
In addition to Washington Filmworks’ efforts, the local film community is stepping up to the plate. What started as a Facebook group called the Seattle Film Industry Caucus is now a group of concerned film professionals that have met numerous times in person, including once with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.
Writer/director Douglas Horn, one member of the Caucus, said the group is committed to engaging elected officials with Washington Filmworks in an effort to develop legislation that supports a more competitive incentive program. They have identified potential tools that can help with this effort, as well.
One such tool is the resurrection of the previously dormant political action committee formerly known as Film PAC. Formed in 2010, Film PAC was created during the last round of legislative action by Seattle film industry member and activist Ron Leamon. Today, Leamon is joined by others in the state’s film community in relaunching the organization as WAfilmPAC. Current leadership of WAfilmPAC consists of chairman Leamon, vice chair Lacey Leavitt, treasurer Joanne Ort and secretary Krk Nordenstrom.
Leavitt said WAfilmPAC’s immediate priority is clear.
“The film incentive cap needs to be raised,” she said. “Our industry has been so successful at cultivating and drawing production work that we became victims of our own success this year, running out of incentive funds not even halfway through the year.”
(l to r) Spokane filmmaker Mischa Jakupcak, Z Nation star Pisay Pao, Seattle producer Lacey Leavitt, plus unidentified zombies celebrate the re-launch of WAfilmPAC.
Leavitt added that the demands to shoot film projects in Washington State have increased over the past several years. “What we’ve been able to accomplish with the fifth-smallest fund in the nation is impressive but we can and should build on the amount of dollars spent on Washington State labor, small businesses and local vendors.”
The organization’s stated goals are based around the common objectives of helping elect state legislative candidates who are likely to support the film industry. Like any political action committee, WAfilmPAC exists to help raise money from supporters of its political agenda, in order to pass those funds along to support the campaigns of candidates who also support that agenda. But Leamon believes there is more to it than that.
“Our agenda is not only increasing the incentive, but increasing awareness of who we are as an industry,” he said. “I believe they go hand in hand. This has been the ongoing education of our communities of legislative, film, and non-film.”
Leavitt and Leamon are big believers in the general economic benefits the state would realize from an increase to the state’s incentive cap.
“A local economy that experiences a film, television or commercial project in their area will feel a positive financial impact and, depending on the project, a boost in tourism,” said Leamon. “By supporting these legislators that believe in our industry, we support the economic future of Washington State.”
Leamon sees the value of WAfilmPAC in communicating these benefits. “It’s an important tool to talk with candidates about industry issues,” he said. “WAfilmPAC also hopes to engage filmmakers, film crew and talent in Washington State to be active and effective participants in government affairs.”
The alternative to increasing Washington’s film incentive cap is to continue with the status quo until it reaches the legislation’s sunset in 2017. But the cost could be high for Washington’s film industry.
“One of the great success stories of the incentive program is our investment in our local storytellers like Lynn Shelton, Lacey Leavitt and Megan Griffiths,” said Lillard. But, she continued, “as their success has increased, so have budgets for their projects. With only $3.5 million in our fund annually, our homegrown talent is being forced to take their projects to states with more competitive incentives.”
Robust film production in Washington would reap widespread benefits for the state’s general economy, and allow the growth and development of the region’s fertile creative talent pool for years to come. Lillard is determined.
“The production incentive program remains the most powerful tool that we have to win motion picture business,” she said. “There is great interest to produce films, commercials and episodic series in Washington State, but not the business model to support it.”
A series of WAfilmPAC fundraising events is being scheduled throughout the state in the weeks ahead, and will continue beyond. For up to date information about these events and more, visit www.WAfilmPAC.org and follow @wafilmpac on Twitter.