Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Film Incentives, Again

New Mexico is featured prominently in at least a dozen or so articles each week about film and media incentives -- often from producers and legislators in other states who envy the success of our program.

The latest, in today's New York Times, discusses what they're doing in Michigan: 

States Underwrite Films, Some in Narrowest Release
LOS ANGELES — Andrew van den Houten, a producer and director, made his movie “Offspring,” about a baby-hungry cannibal clan, with a boost from the taxpayers of Michigan.

Now comes the hard part: getting people to watch it.

“We haven’t had one of our films get major theatrical release,” said Mr. van den Houten, whose ModerncinĂ© company has produced five movies mostly for horror fans, who can find them on video or at genre festivals like Toronto After Dark. This time around he is happy to have landed “Offspring,” which cost roughly $1 million — 35 percent picked up by the state — with Grindstone Entertainment Group and its Ghost House Underground direct-to-video line.

So it goes with a growing number of subsidy films made in Michigan and elsewhere around the country. They may not be coming to a theater near you.

Under an unusually aggressive program of state film incentives that began in April, nearly two dozen feature-length movies (in addition to short films, documentaries and television shows) were shot in Michigan last year with public support that can reach 42 percent of a movie’s cost, the largest such incentive offered in the United States.

The idea is to create employment in that economically depressed state. The ploy was recently matched by California, which devised a film credit of its own to compete with incentives now offered by three dozen states, including New Mexico, New York and Louisiana.

The first round of Michigan credits cost that state’s taxpayers about $48 million in 2008, while generating about $53.8 million in new employment income, and the equivalent of 1,102 full-time jobs, according to a report last month by the Center for Economic Analysis at Michigan State University.

But only a handful of pictures shot with the subsidy have secured theatrical distribution. The shining stars are Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” a Michigan-backed movie that was released by Warner Brothers in December, and “Youth in Revolt,” which was directed by Miguel Arteta, stars Michael Cera, and is scheduled for release by the Dimension Films unit of the Weinstein Company next fall.

The rest, by and large, are pointed toward festivals, video stores and pay-per-view services — if that.


Whether government-subsidized films are ever seen by a significant audience may not matter much in the short run.

“What matters is that you maximize employment for residents in the state,” said Eric Witt, chief of staff to the New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, who began an extensive incentive program in his state shortly after taking office in 2003.

Still, the audience has something to say about the sustainability of incentives. “If you’re making shoes and nobody’s wearing them, it doesn’t create a brand,” said Mr. Witt, whose state has helped underwrite films as prominent as “Terminator Salvation,” a $200 million action epic set for release by Warner Brothers in May.

Each state’s experience with film subsidies has been different, and the mix of movies may change with time. In Michigan the sudden availability of a large incentive in a state with relatively little film infrastructure appears to have drawn a rush of projects that could be started quickly but had uncertain prospects.

There, as elsewhere, officials are largely agnostic about a film’s commercial potential when authorizing a credit.

“We’re not going to say if you’ve got an independent film that isn’t going to be released in a thousand theaters, we’re not going to fund it,” said Ken Droz, manager of the creative and communications department at the Michigan Film Office, which administers the state’s credits.

The state does consider a film’s possible impact on tourism. It helps if Michigan looks attractive, even when it’s doubling for Texas, as it did in “Whip It!,” a roller-derby romp that was directed by Drew Barrymore and does not yet have a distributor... 

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