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March 11, 2009

Lights, camera, traction

Proposed bill would lure moviemakers to Kentucky with the promise of tax breaks

It’s been more than a decade since filmmaker and Kentucky native Stu Pollard directed his seminal romantic comedy “Nice Guys Sleep Alone” here in the Bluegrass, and Pollard’s area code has since changed from 502 to 310 — Santa Monica, Calif., to be exact, which is about 16 miles due west of Los Angeles.

That’s a good 2,100 miles from Louisville, where film production has historically taken a backseat to more “traditional” industries (i.e. bourbon, horses, healthcare, disco ball manufacturing) in lieu of the glitz, glamour and rampant hedonism which, for the most part, color our perception of Hollywood’s recession-proof movie economy. Yet as the commonwealth — and the world at large — experiences its worst recession since World War II, the idea of luring moviemakers to the Bluegrass is starting to make more economic sense than you might expect — at least, in theory.

House Bill 31, sponsored by state Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, would provide tax incentives to movie studios that set up shop and film their movies, commercials, TV pilots, intra-organizational training videos, documentaries and cartoons right here in the commonwealth. It’s the latest attempt to lure Pollard & Co. back to the Bluegrass, albeit kind of a resurrected version of last year’s H.B. 756. Passage of such a bill would bring Kentucky in line with the other 45 states that offer tax credits to movie companies, reaping the economic multipliers that come with them.

“I think that everybody’s hurting right now,” says Pollard. “But since young people today have a much broader access to filmmaking technology than I did when I was growing up, and Kentucky always talks about its ‘brain drain’ problem, by incentivizing the movie industry you get young, creative people to stick around and make their homes closer to [Louisville].”

Pollard admits he’s no economist, and, given these strapped-for-cash times, can see the other side of the argument: That we would be throwing our increasingly borrowed and stimulus-provided money toward companies that will only briefly operate in Kentucky, vanishing before we get a return on the investment; carpet bagging, our ancestors called it.

Those who share this view, like Ed Parker of the conservative-leaning, legislative watchdog website “TakeBackKentucky.com,” see the bill as laden with pork at a time when we can ill afford it.

“H.B. 31 is specifically full of this stuff,” says Parker, a retired engineer who generally favors tax cuts in any shape or form. “Usually when people come in with a bill like this it contains seven or eight things that are bad, that don’t need to in be there, and that’s what we look for.”

Unfortunately, Rep. Marzian could not be reached for comment as of press time, as her help would have been invaluable in examining the labyrinthine document, which if passed would allocate a variety of personal and corporate tax breaks averaging 20-25 percent for approved film companies and their armies of gaffers, best boys and crafts services operators. At a time when talk of pork accompanies any serious discussion of stimulus-related legislation, navigating the bill alone proved somewhat confusing, as it appears current sections of H.B. 31 offer support for green and other alternative-energy incentives, the inclusion of which in a movie-industry bill baffles the average citizen in me.

Yet, like Pollard, Tracy Heightchew, co-founder of the Louisville Film Society, sees these incentives not as liberal cash cows, but as a long-term benefit to the local economy.

She puts it this way: Louisville-based Hart-Lunsford Pictures is forced to shoot in Tennessee because it’s cheaper there. The problem? Many of its films are set in Kentucky, and so the locals hired to make hypothetical cappuccinos for, say, John Cusack, are hired outside the commonwealth. In other words, a job that isn’t created is a job ostensibly lost.

Heightchew’s argument goes beyond mere aesthetics: It’s not about making sure you have the right horse farm in the background, but rather “[The] ripple effect: If you have a company producing a feature in, say, Danville,” she explains, “then Danville has a population that can be employed by that production.”

She cites the popularity of Baxter Avenue Theaters, Village 8’s “Louisville Exclusives” series and Lexington’s historic Kentucky Theater as indicative of the region’s “established audience for independent, cult and foreign film.” Add to that the 48-Hour Film Project, Humana’s Festival of New American Plays, and the yet-to-open, locally owned and operated Vanguard Cinema.

“I think it’s something that’s continually growing here,” Heightchew added. “And it’s ripe for even more development in the future.”

Derrick Beasley, a partner in the Vanguard project, is keeping details about the planned independent cinema to a minimum (he expects to provide more information later this week, as he and his partners are awaiting a bid on a prospective property), but he expects “hardhats and marquees by late spring, early summer.”

But Pollard lives on the West Coast. The Louisville Film Society focuses primarily on showing films, not public outreach on the stimulating effects of the film industry. Last year’s H.B. 756 bill had 17 sponsors, while Rep. Marzian is the lone sponsor of this year’s version. And with little time left in the 2009 General Assembly, H.B. 31’s fate remains uncertain. Given Frankfort’s current score card, anything is possible. If they can find the time to consider banning same-sex adoption, raise the alcohol tax, and designate burgoo as the official state dish, then Kentucky’s legislators just might shake off their stage fright and open the commonwealth’s borders to a new and ever-expanding industry.

Like most sequels, however, H.B. 31 could be nothing more than a box-office flop with the best of intentions. 

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