On the night of May 25, the 2011 legislative special session adjourned and it was revealed that a bill to renew the state’s production industry incentive program did not pass.
The bill—which would have extended the expiration date for the Washington Motion Picture Competitiveness Program from July 1, 2011, to July 1, 2017, and increased the program’s budget, among other things—died without ever being brought to the floor for a vote.
“This is devastating to our industry,” said Amy Lillard, executive director of Washington Filmworks (WF), shortly after the announcement was made. WF is the non-profit organization that handles film production support and incentives statewide.
“It’s so competitive out there,” she continued. “Forty-four states have incentives, and without an incentive, your state won’t even be considered for film production.”
Since its establishment in 2006, Washington’s Motion Picture Competitiveness Program has created over $100 million in economic activity statewide, with more than 70 projects—films, television and commercials—receiving the incentive since 2007. According to a December 2010 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC), each dollar spent in Washington by the film industry was estimated to yield $1.99 in economic return.
Along with its report, the JLARC recommended to the Legislature that the bill be passed, with the following explanation: “Because the tax credit for contributions to the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program is achieving the objective of maintaining Washington’s position as a competitive location for filming, the Legislature should continue this preference and re-examine the preference at a later date to determine its ongoing effectiveness in encouraging filming in Washington State.”
Though fruitless, the JLARC’s recommendation is a significant feather in the cap of the failed bill, officially named 2SSB 5539, which experienced its share of challenges prior to its death in the House.
After passing through the Senate with a 30 to 17 vote, the bill made its way to the House Ways & Means Committee. There, it was amended by Committee chair Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, who introduced an amendment to reduce the size of the program’s fund to $1.75 million per year from the proposed $3.5 million.
Two days later, when 5539 reached the House of Representatives, House Speaker Frank Chopp linked it to a housing and homelessness bill that needed to be passed in the Senate. The housing bill did not pass the Senate, effectively killing the production incentive bill as a result.
It is not clear why Chopp linked the two bills, and Media Inc.’s attempts to contact him for comment went unanswered. However, in an interview with Jordan Schrader, state government reporter for Tacoma’s News Tribune, Chopp said that the defeat of the tax breaks for film production, as well as newspapers and computer servers, was simple.
“There were a lot of concerns about giving tax breaks to any people,” he said, adding, “These things weren’t necessary for implementing the budget, so we ran out of time.”
If there is one positive takeaway from the session, it is the strengthening of the state’s film community. Leading up to the session, the bill received unprecedented support from local production folks who participated in letter-writing campaigns and face-to-face meetings with legislators.
“Traditionally the industry hasn’t been politically active,” explained Lillard. “And while the outcome of this legislative session isn’t what we wanted, we are pleased with the great support we received from our production community. Every time we were in Olympia, we talked to legislators who said, ‘I’ve heard so much about your bill,’ which means our community really stepped up and vocally supported us. There’s a real sense of community here.”
Added Don Jensen, WF boardmember and president of Alpha Cine in Seattle, “We had a lot of support in both the House and the Senate, from legislators such as Senate majority leader Lisa Brown and Jeanne Kohl-Welles, among many others.
“A lot of people told us we had the votes. We just ran out of time.”
The bill’s demise has dealt a major blow to the local production community, which over the past five years has come to rely on the incentive program.
“As a community, the film incentive has helped create a thriving hub for film production,” said Jeanna Hofmeister, vice president and director of destination marketing at Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. “(Spokane production company) North By Northwest has produced several movies each year, providing jobs and economic development in the process. In fact, North by Northwest’s most recent production, River Sorrow, debuted at Cannes. That kind of recognition, both for an industry and for our community, is invaluable.”
Hofmeister noted that the bill’s defeat was especially difficult considering that it came on the heels of the demise of the state’s tourism office, which was also cut in the legislative session.
“It felt like a double whammy,” she said. “The tourism and film industries create billions of dollars in spending, and millions of dollars in tax relief for Washington’s residents. It seems foolhardy to cut programs that generate thousands of jobs and that kind of revenue for our state.”
Though many in the local community remain confident that the industry will survive with or without an incentive program in place, it will be difficult to assuage the impact of the loss and also maintain the increase in business many have become accustomed to since the incentive’s initial passing in 2006.
“The incentive has given us access to an increased volume of high-profile national work, which has been good for my business,” said Peter Barnes, principal of local audio company Clatter&Din. “This additional national work has helped spread the word about Seattle’s talent pool, which, in turn, helps us all.”
Added Dave Peterson, president of Seattle’s Midlakes Insurance, “Over the last few years (the incentive) has helped us compete with big brokers in SoCal for insuring projects in Washington. I have been very satisfied to be a part of the program…
“Hopefully some day it will be resurrected.”
Lillard is optimistic that “some day” will be next year, when Washington Filmworks takes the bill back to the 2012 legislative session. The WF board is meeting periodically to strategize how to best do so, and plans thus far include a grassroots lobbying campaign.
“We’re seeing this as a delay, rather than a defeat,” said Lillard. “Our industry is so interesting in general. It takes time to explain how our industry works, and we’re going to spend time helping legislators understand. We aren’t an industry that fits in a nice box.”
“We need to work to build strong political support,” agreed Jensen. “We already have key supporters, but we just have to keep working to build that base. We have a good shot when we go next year.”
Lindsey Johnson, former production services manager at Washington Filmworks and current managing director at National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY), said she hopes that the coming year will be used to “re-evaluate what is needed as far as an incentive and film office by working with the film community, legislators and business community to find what would be the most helpful to grow and support a sustainable industry.”
She added, “Maybe even create a new model that is innovative, competitive, and uniquely Washington State.”
In the meantime, it is business as usual at WF.
“We’re in no different shape financially than we would’ve been if it had passed,” said Jensen. “We raised funds in the first six months to keep us going just in case.”
Added Lillard, “From January to June of this year we raised $3.5 million, so we will continue to honor the commitments we’ve made to productions, and we will continue to service the community in a film office capacity—permitting, locations, infrastructure questions.”
With the money raised, WF recently awarded incentive packages to four separate productions coming to Washington.
“We are committed to Washington’s production industry,” Lillard continued. “And we are not going down without a fight.”