June 11, 2008

Out of Focus - Lights, Camera, Kentucky! knows film projects can breathe life into Kentucky’s economy. They’re not the ones

Like a Hitchcock film, let’s start where we are now, then unravel how we got here and why where we are matters.

Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond has a budget problem. The university has a proposed curriculum for a master’s degree in film and media arts, not only a first in Kentucky, but also the region. The obstacle: the state’s budget shortfall. The solution: new revenue.

In April, House Bill 756, which would have given better tax incentives to major film production crews to shoot movies here in Kentucky, did not make it to the House floor. Proponents of the bill said that, if passed, it would’ve brought almost $30 million in new revenue to the state. 

The opposition? House Appropriations and Revenue chair Rep. Harry Moberly. The Richmond Democrat was the major dissenter. Although the Senate approved the second draft of HB 756, no action was taken before the regular session expired. Ironically, Moberly is the executive vice president for administration at EKU. Reached for comment, his office declined. 

Last September, a group called Lights, Camera, Kentucky! formed to help push legislation — in this case, HR 756 — that, at a minimum, would match what states like Louisiana and Massachusetts have enacted. Currently, Kentucky offers a 6 percent tax rebate for film companies with budgets of $500,000 or more, compared with an average of 25-30 percent in other states that also offer perks like hotel room tax reimbursements. Massachusetts, beefed up its film tax incentives to include everyone with a budget of $50,000 who, according to its film office, “shoot at least half of their movie or spend at least half of their production budget in the Commonwealth — are eligible for a tax credit equal to 25 percent of their total spending in Massachusetts, inclusive of any salaries over $1 million. No caps. No limits. No pre-authorization. No pre-certification. No lines. No waiting. No muss. No fuss.”

In March, LCK! manager Merry-Kay Poe lobbied and earned the primary sponsorship of Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Owensboro, in taking HB 756 to the Senate. Thompson’s district had at least one major film ready to roll and might’ve had two others based on the outcome of the vote. Because HB 756 didn’t fly, Kentucky might now lose full production of a $10 million film “The Touch,” produced by Ralph Singleton (“Murder at 1600,” “Harlem Nights”). A bipartisan coalition of 16 legislators strongly backed the bill, but Poe said that members found a great deal of uncertainty in how much actual revenue the film industry would bring to Kentucky. 

“We sat in Frankfort until 2 a.m. waiting for notice when they announced the session had ended,” Poe said. “Everyone was stunned. We had no idea what had happened.”

[img_assist|nid=6991|title=Out of Focus|desc=Rafael Winer/Lunacy productions In this scene from “Keep Your Distance,” filmed at Seventh and Jefferson streets downtown, Melody Carpenter (Westfeldt) has just picked up David Dailey (Bellows) from jail.|link=|align=left|width=400|height=266]

George Clooney and cast made a splash in Maysville, Ky., when the film “Leatherheads” premiered there. But the story was set in Duluth, Minn., and film production took place almost entirely in South Carolina, where productions spending more than $250,000 are exempt from sales and accommodations taxes. “Dreamers,” the 2004 film about the Crane horse farm in Lexington starring Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning, was shot partially in Kentucky, but the crew disassembled four horse barns and transported them to Shreveport, La., to shoot most of the film. (Louisiana’s tax incentive: 25 percent.) Billy Bob Thornton’s “Mammoth Cave: The Floyd Collins Story” will likely be produced in the non-cave “country” of Massachusetts.

LCK! estimates that in the past few years, counting the producers of current films who hoped this bill would pass in April, Kentucky has lost 75 percent of a possible tax base of $80 million. A minority of legislators like Moberly feared this bill was essentially a tax break to people like Martin Scorsese. The reality is that no tax revenue of any type is gained when Hollywood passes Kentucky on the way to North Carolina.

John Fitch is a professor of film studies at Eastern Kentucky University. He, along with EKU’s communications department and university President Doug Whitlock, expressed support for the bill. “We have a tremendous talent pool not only at EKU, but Asbury and Georgetown (colleges) who would benefit from this bill,” Fitch said.

Each institution has programs designed to train students at introductory levels of the industry. Then, Fitch said of his own students, “I have to tell them they’ll most likely need to leave Kentucky to get big-budget experience.” Fitch’s Kentucky filmmaker friend, Robbie Henson, who’s working on the film “Broken April,” with a $10 million budget, would love to shoot this film in his home state. But he’s looking at Tennessee in order to make best use of the medium-sized budget. At EKU, students are flocking to its film program. Fitch said, “We started our film option two years ago, offering 30 hours. It’s the fastest growing program in the communications department. We are seeing a brain-drain in our graduates leaving for other states.”

Fitch hopes the bill passes for another reason. In building the MFA program, it’s essential they have the best lecturers available to their students. And while Kentucky has filmmakers in-state, few have the experience of directors, actors and producers who would spend a month or more in the state filming big-budget films. 

There is still hope for HB 756: the next legislative session in January 2009. Until then, Kentucky remains a blip on the silver screen. At LCK!’s website, www.lightscamerakentucky.com, film industry professionals are encouraged to visit for the trade organizational aspect alone. Poe said supporters of HB 756 should write Gov. Steve Beshear’s office asking that any special session include a vote on this bill. 


Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com