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Film Commissions in Crisis

Film Commissions in Crisis

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It was a close call for the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission (NJMPTC) in July 2008. Despite the millions of dollars and thousands of jobs the organization had brought into the state’s economy over the years (in 2007 alone, a record 972 projects, including 95 features, generated $121 million), it still teetered on the brink of elimination due to state budget cuts. As fiscal figures were bounced around in Trenton, a cautious optimism for restored funding prevailed among the commission’s small staff, which lobbied furiously behind the scenes. And then “Save New Jersey Film” was created, which by most accounts helped to seal the deal on the commission’s survival.

The grassroots online petition, designed by Sam Rohn, a New York locations manager who has called upon the Newark-based NJMPTC on many occasions, garnered some 1,000 signatures. Coupled with numerous letters, e-mails and phone calls from concerned citizens and industry professionals, the outcry clearly demonstrated the commission’s value—a message that would not be lost on New Jersey’s legislators.

“The response was phenomenal,” says David W. Schoner, Jr., the NJMPTC’s production coordinator. “The unions and guilds were very vocal, and we eventually filled three, three-inch binders with letters and sent them, along with the online signatures, to the governor, his chief of staff, the state treasurer, the senate president, the assembly president, the head of economic development and a few other officials.”

One of the deluge’s recipients was New Jersey Senate President Richard Codey. “Any time legislators get inquiries from constituents, they respond,” says Codey. “In this case, all the phone calls, letters and e-mails were positive; no one was telling us not to restore the commission. The campaign had great impact. Many legislators don’t understand the benefits of a film commission, but when you sit down and do the math, you think, ‘Why would we do away with this and stop people from filming here?’ The return on investment is fabulous.”

“The outpouring of support from filmmakers all over the country was very rewarding,” notes Steven Gorelick, executive director of the NJMPTC. “So many letters detailed how important we’ve been to people’s lives, to their financial welfare.”

Worth and sentiment notwithstanding, the commission did not escape elimination unscathed. Its budget was reduced by more than 25 percent and its staff cut to four, leading to a more frugal existence. “Certainly, beyond the day-to-day work with filmmakers, we can’t do as much as we’d like to, such as building up our digital location database, helping with film festivals and going into the field to meet with town reps. But we’re making do as best we can,” Gorelick offers.

Lea Girardin, director of the Maine Film Office, understands budget reductions and staff cuts. In July, she will become the sole employee of her now two-person commission, thanks to fiscal restructuring that left no room in the budget for an assistant director. Girardin handles a heavy workload on a fraction of the six-figure budgets provided to many film commissions and depends greatly on the assistance of interns and volunteer industry professionals.

“Our first job is to continue to serve the productions that come into Maine, so they have everything they need to find locations, get permits, etc.,” she says from her Augusta office. “We’ve had to do a bit of triage to itemize the most important things and streamline some processes, and we still have our governor-appointed advisory board to raise funding.”

Girardin laments that she may have to let a pilot mentoring program, among other projects, fall by the wayside. Her plight follows an in-depth study of Maine’s visual media industry conducted by the film office, spanning 1996 to 2006, which discovered an average return on investment (ROI) of 39.1 to one. A recent independent investigation carried out by economic consulting firm ECONorthwest showed a direct economic impact of $371 million, based on 2005 figures. Also noted in the ECONorthwest findings were the thousands of full- and part-time jobs directly related to film production, as well as those created in response to it, and the resulting $80.9 million in direct wages.

“The benchmark research also found that for every $1 million spent in Maine by out-of-state visual media productions, $150,000 is generated in state and local revenue. That money circulates in the community and builds on itself,” Girardin points out.

Such hard numbers are invaluable in proving a film commission’s overall economic merit and bottom-line contributions to a state’s revenue base.

Film commissions date back to the late 1940s, and their goal has always been to serve as a liaison between production companies and municipalities. Today they operate around the globe through national, provincial, state, regional and local levels of government. Typical services include scouting and securing locations, facilitating permits, administering incentives and general troubleshooting. Economic development, once the gravy of the system, has grown to become a primary raison d’être. In fact, film commissions now aim to attract productions to their respective cities and towns to reap monetary benefits and promote opportunities for local crews, talent and goods and services companies.

“In almost every case, a government has chosen to provide a film commission because of strategic need,” notes Bill Lindstrom, CEO of the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI).

Founded in 1975, the AFCI offers professional development, marketing and networking services to a membership of 330 film commissions, representing more than 40 countries worldwide. About 57 percent are in the United States.

“I think that the purpose of any state’s economic development program is to make life better for citizens,” Lindstrom adds. “Over the last century, government resources involved in economic development have come to focus a lot on job creation. The entertainment industry generates jobs, as well as revenue, on a widespread basis.”
Kevin Shand, executive director of the Colorado Film Commission, agrees. “The film industry is a prime example of an industry that can bring in jobs quickly,” he says. “We can take whatever infrastructure is in place and say—boom!—let’s film tomorrow.”

The current difficulty faced by Shand is that his commission has been acting as a public/private partnership since 2005, when it relaunched after losing its state funding in 2002 and shattering in 2003. As such, it relies heavily on outside funding from corporate sponsors and membership dues to supplement its state appropriations. In January 2008, Shand led a legislative battle to both reestablish the Colorado Film Commission as a state entity and expand its film incentives program to attract more productions. (For the most up-to-date information on the legislative endeavor spearheaded by Denver’s moviemaking community, visit www.coloradofilm.org.)

Like the NJMPTC and the Maine Film Office, Colorado ran a grassroots effort asking that letters and e-mails be sent to legislators and commissioned the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado at Boulder to deliver an economic impact study that lent major credibility to its case.

“The study showed that the film industry positively affects 75 percent of our counties, not just the metropolitan areas. It also revealed an ROI of 20 to one for the 2007 to 2008 fiscal year,” says Shand, who is one of a staff of three who are helped by a volunteer board of directors, general volunteers and 85 community liaisons, and works closely with Colorado’s Economic Development and Tourism Offices.

“Right now we’re really just a nonprofit with no authority to do anything,” says Shand. “Being part of the state government would give us leverage to make certain things happen. We’re funded through June 30; if our bill doesn’t pass, it’ll be hard to get private funding, especially in this economy.”

While the majority of film commissions are managed under governmental auspices, a small number function independently, which is not to say that they’re immune to fiscal challenges. The Minnesota Film and TV Board, also a public/private partnership, receives a state appropriation each year from the department of tourism, but only if it matches one dollar of private funding for every three dollars approved by state legislation. Donations come from individuals, associations and companies such as craft unions and post-production facilities that realize the benefit of having a healthy film industry. Another revenue source is an annual state production guide that pulls in upwards of $30,000.

“I spend much of my time fundraising, which is very different from traditional film commissions,” remarks Lucinda Winter, executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board . “I operate [it] like a small business: I have a board of directors that oversees my budget and checks that I’m being fiscally prudent.”
The commission was established in 1981 after Robert Redford considered shooting Ordinary People in Minnesota, but turned elsewhere when there wasn’t a film body to assist him. When industry professionals subsequently approached the governor for commission funding and were denied, they formed a private, nonprofit organization that continues to this day. Winter and her staff of three depend on interns and consultants to keep things running smoothly.

Minnesota’s commission has had its ups and downs. “In 2002, then-Governor Jesse Ventura cut our budget significantly and we strove to keep the doors open,” Winter remembers. “Just recently, I was asked to make suggestions as to how the budget can be cut by 10 percent for the coming year.

“While that’s not good news, it’s happening to everybody,” Winter continues. “We’ll just have to increase our private funding. It’s not going to be easy, but at least I have that option.”

Scott Robbe, executive director of Film Wisconsin, can relate. In July 2005, budget cuts shut down the Wisconsin Film Office, which had served the state for 18 years. In April of the same year, a posse of moviemakers with the forsight to anticipate the office’s demise created a task force and toured the state to meet with industry professionals and determine what they needed from a new film commission. Out of that came Film Wisconsin, a public/private partnership that functions as an independent entity.

“The filmmaking community essentially reinvented the film office to make it an industry-driven organization, run by industry people,” says Robbe. “Not surprisingly, I’ve seen other film commissions take this direction. The key for us was partnering with the Wisconsin Arts Board, as well as the lieutenant governor, who saw the benefits of converging art and commerce.” Robbe, a native of Wisconsin who returned after 20 years of producing and directing on both coasts, acknowledges that, “The trend with state governments is that as soon as they get into economic trouble, they become reactive rather than proactive. They work from a position of fear and trepidation rather than innovation and reinvention. It’s a failing paradigm.”

Production-wise, 2008 was the best year in Wisconsin’s history. Eight features shot there, chief among them Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. According to the numbers in Universal Studios Actuals Reports, the movie’s direct expenditures in Wisconsin were upwards of $7 million.

Regardless of the program’s success, in February, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle submitted a budget proposal that would replace the state’s film incentives with a $1 million grant program that is much less desirable in the eyes of Robbe and other members of the Wisconsin film community.

Using Wisconsin as a prime example, it’s clear that delivering on a plan doesn’t always register, particularly with legislators. Despite the fact that film commissions draw what Shand calls “a clean infusion of cash, we’re not giving away millions—we’re generating them,” financial incentives for moviemakers continue to be reduced-—or eliminated.

“Every time a movie is made here, we enhance the economy,” offers Gorelick. “But budgeters may argue that desperate times call for desperate measures when closing an agency of economic development.” Even after all the public support, Gorelick’s commission may face another fiscal fight in the future. Says Senator Codey, “I think we could have the same budget battle all over again.” MM

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