Here’s to Our Future, Washington

Motion Picture Competitiveness Bill Signed into Law

By Jessie Wilson, Communications Consultant, Washington Filmworks

FLASHBACK TO 2011:
In June of 2011, the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program sunset, in essence halting five years of significant effort to maintain Washington’s viability on the national filmmaking scene. Efforts to renew the legislation that funds our state’s film incentive program passed the Senate in 2011. Unfortunately, the bill stalled in the House of Representatives and was never called to the floor for a vote.

The sunset of this program was an undeniable blow to our state’s film industry. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC), an independent body of the legislature, had recommended the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program be reinstated. JLARC backed program renewal because it offered a return on the state’s investment and effectively maintained Washington’s position in a competitive marketplace. Yet despite significant contribution to Washington’s economy, the bill to renew the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program sunset on June 30, 2011.

The law establishing the program provided that Washington Filmworks could collect up to $3.5 million each calendar year from contributors who were eligible for a dollar-for-dollar B&O tax credit from the Department of Revenue. The Washington Filmworks board was able to gather this amount before the tax credit expired. This enabled the organization to provide incentive funds for 11 projects in 2011.

Knowing that the renewal of the program was uncertain, the Filmworks board developed a contingency plan, which would allow the portion of the program that serves as the state’s film office to continue on a limited basis through June of 2012. After reviewing the organization’s budget, the board took action to reduce staff and all other expenses, while still allowing for meaningful assistance to productions interested in filming in Washington. This also allowed staff, the board, and the community to prepare for another round of lobbying in Olympia the following year.

CUT TO 2012:
Slightly battered, Washington’s film community had pulled itself up by the bootstraps and was ready for take two on the road to renewal. Facing another state budget shortfall, combined with a short legislative session, provided challenges for the program’s renewal. However, the legislature had made it clear that creating and maintaining jobs was a priority. This gave some hope; the Motion Picture Competiveness Program was designed to create jobs and provide sustainable work for the local film industry. Coming to terms with our bill’s underdog status in this economic climate, Washington Filmworks had become a little leaner and meaner. We were officially savvier and determined to keep our supporters informed. As a result, we launched a legislative blog to keep the film community in the fight.

Since the bill had stalled during the 2011 legislative session, it once again landed in the house of origin—the Senate. We continued to have great support from our champion, Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (Seattle), but this time the landscape had shifted slightly. The Motion Picture Competitiveness Program passed out of the Senate with an overwhelming majority—40 yeas, 8 nays, and 1 excused.

The bill, now known as 2ESSB 5539, was headed back to the House of Representatives where the bulk of our fight would still lie. We were somewhat anxious at this news, as the bill had been significantly amended in the House Ways and Means Committee the prior year.

Simultaneously, we had reason to feel cautiously optimistic. Washington’s film community was rallying in a way not witnessed in 2011. Washington Filmworks was hearing word that people were taking action, calling legislators, writing letters and e-mails, and visiting Olympia. We were copied on thousands of e-mails to elected officials across the state in support of the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program.

Ironically, as our state’s film community was fighting to maintain their industry, Washington Filmworks’ filmmaking alumni were raking in awards and nominations. 2011 films produced through the incentive program were charming the pants off critics and audiences on the 2012 film festival circuit. Safety Not Guaranteed was a darling of Sundance, where it earned worldwide distribution, while Eden and Fat Kid Rules the World premiered at SxSW, both eventually going on to win Audience Awards. It was clear, Washington had a slew of successes to share with our legislators.

A new rally call was put to the film community. Washington Filmworks asked them to get informed, get involved, and get renewed. We knew we could not pass this legislation without their involvement. By early March, things had intensified in Olympia and the legislative session was slated to end in less than a week. By now 2ESSB 5539 had been declared necessary to implement the budget (NTIB), but Olympia had taken a page from Hollywood’s book and things were starting to get dramatic. On the evening of March 2, the GOP seized majority control of the Senate and passed their own version of the budget. Suddenly we were witnessing rare political and parliamentary maneuvers that had not been seen in Washington for over 25 years.

Was it time to worry? Was 2011 doomed to repeat itself? Washington Filmworks’ legislative team still felt there was a chance to be heard in the House, and the Washington film community had turned up the heat. Calls and e-mails were flooding into legislators’ offices yet again. Elected officials in each district were hearing from constituents in support of the incentive. There was word from Olympia that their voices were being acknowledged, but it was getting down to the wire.

One tremendous hurdle still faced our film community. The bill was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee, where it was amended during the 2011 legislative session. In fact, Ways and Means Committee Chair Representative Ross Hunter had cut the annual funding for the program in half, crippling its effectiveness and stopping the momentum that has been created through the film program. Not wanting a repeat performance, on March 7, Washington Filmworks and members of the community headed to Olympia to testify in front of Representative Hunter and members of the House Ways and Means Committee.

We were prepared for an underdog scenario, and while Representative Hunter was expectedly outspoken, the support from the rest of the room was apparent. The majority of Representatives in the room spoke in favor of the bill and opponents appeared to have become the minority. Phenomenally, before the Committee could vote on the bill, it was pulled to the Second Substitute Calendar, making it eligible to be heard on the House floor.

On March 8, Washington Filmworks and much of our state’s film community spent the day watching the House Floor debate on television. The anxiety was palpable in our office and on our social media platforms. We were fielding questions on parliamentary procedure as other measures came to the floor.  By the afternoon the film bill had not been scheduled for a vote and we knew there were no guarantees one would happen. The House had until midnight to consider any bills, and as day turned into evening, 2ESSB 5539 was still not up to be heard. We could only watch and wait, all the while recalling last year. Would that night’s dinner be the equivalent of a last meal for the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program?

Around 9pm, Washington Filmworks heard word from our legislative team that the film incentive bill would indeed come to the floor. We were glued to our televisions and computers to watch what unfolded. We had done all we could do.

If our strategy had worked, cautious optimism told us to expect renewal of the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program, but the vote would tell the true story. The Representatives began to speak in support of the bill and the legislation was opened to a vote. Our jaws dropped as the number of “yeas” on the tally board rose higher and higher, finally closing with a count of 92 in favor and 6 against.

After 2ESSB 5539  passed out of the House of Representatives, the bill was sent to Governor Gregoire’s office for her signature. It was officially signed on the evening of March 29, 2012, and will become law 90 days after the end of the 2012 legislative session, or June.

A HAPPY ENDING
This legislative renewal campaign had all of the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster, but one made in Washington. The story is born out of the classic underdog plotline. There were definitely protagonists and antagonists, there have certainly been overwhelming odds, and there was undeniably a lot on the line.

When the credits roll, there are many heroes to recognize. None of this would have been possible without the support of the bill’s sponsors, especially Senator Kohl-Welles and Representative Phyllis Gutiérrez Kenney. Washington Filmworks would also like to acknowledge the Speaker of the House, Representative Frank Chopp, who was essential in bringing the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program to the floor for a vote. Watching our industry take ownership of their future has been amazing and we tip our hats to the tremendous grassroots efforts of the film community. It has been an inspiring thing to watch.

Here’s to our future, Washington.

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