LIANE HANSEN, host:
In the late 1990s, US filmmakers began to cross international borders to save money while making movies and television shows. Canada and Eastern Europe were the biggest magnets for these so-called runaway productions. But Hollywood is returning Stateside. Some producers say the weakened dollar makes it less sensible to flee to Vancouver or Toronto. Many film and TV makers are being lured back by tax breaks and other pocketbook incentives. And as Anthea Raymond reports, that has set up competition between states rather than countries.
ANTHEA RAYMOND reporting:
In a convention hall in Santa Monica, California, countries, cities and states hawk their wares.
Unidentified Woman #1: Reno-Tahoe has a lot of looks that pass for the East Coast...
Unidentified Woman #2: But the really nice thing about Colorado is that there are so many different types of locations within the state. You've got the whole...
RAYMOND: All the vendors want the same thing: to lure a film or TV show to their turf.
Unidentified Man #1: I do know. The other thing is that the government has not made it easy to film in Kenya, which was not always the case...
RAYMOND: The competition is lively and fierce. Amy Lemisch heads the California Film Commission, which helps film and TV producers shoot in the States. She says film and TV production is widely believed to perk up local economies.
Ms. AMY LEMISCH (California Film Commission): And it's not just wages 'cause they're local hires. It's hotels, it's car rental, it's dry cleaners, it's grocery, it's caterers, it's lumber. Every local vendor--you're not bringing that stuff from out of town. You're going to find local vendors for all of that. So it brings a huge amount of money into their local region.
RAYMOND: How much money? At one point the Directors Guild of America estimated that the US economy lost more than $10 billion from runaway production. The lion's share of film and TV production has traditionally been in California, Los Angeles in particular. The reason is simple, says Lemisch.
Ms. LEMISCH: When I talk to producers and production executives from the studios, across the board people like to work here. They want to be home. If it's producers, their kids are in school; they want to stay in town. If it's from the studio's side, they would like to be close to the production, so they can have more oversight or, you know, be around. It benefits everyone when they can stay close.
RAYMOND: But lately California finds itself with new competition. Other locales, like Louisiana, New Mexico, New York and Illinois, are offering incentives, such as tax breaks. They're piggybacking on recently passed federal legislation, the so-called American Jobs Creation Act. It gives tax incentives to projects that cost around $15 million. That, according to some in the industry, can save a producer about 10 percent of total costs. But nearly everyone agrees state incentives, too, are a must. So it's not surprising that at the Santa Monica fair, tax credits, discounts and rebates were all folks were talking about.
Mr. JACK GERBES (Heads Film Office in Maryland): Well, as people are coming by, at one time they used to come to the locations and they'd ask about specific locations and what we had to offer locationwise and crewwise.
RAYMOND: Jack Gerbes heads the Film Office in Maryland, where an incentive passed recently.
Mr. GERBES: Now the first question out of their mouths are, `What type of funds, and what incentives? How much cash can we get from your state or from your city to shoot in your state?'
RAYMOND: Maryland's new law gives producers a cash rebate--that's a refund check--on a percentage of what they spend in Maryland. Utah, South Carolina and New Mexico have similar programs. Other cities and states, including Louisiana and New York City, have built their programs around tax credits. Jack Gerbes of Maryland says Louisiana's tax credits are so generous that it's tough to compete.
Mr. GERBES: So far this year there are three projects that were either written for or was set to shoot in Maryland that will now be rewritten for Louisiana because of the incentives that they offer.
RAYMOND: Louisiana's program combines two tax credits with other benefits. The result? Film and TV production has grown tenfold in the last two years.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #2: Elvis. Elvis Presley.
RAYMOND: The CBS miniseries "Elvis" was shot almost completely in Louisiana; so was Taylor Hackford's "Ray," this summer's "The Dukes of Hazzard" and the forthcoming "All the King's Men." Michael Jaffe, the LA-based producer of "Elvis," has been making movies and miniseries since the 1970s.
Mr. MICHAEL JAFFE (Producer): We constantly look for ways to increase our efficiencies. I don't think there's another business in the United States that would work on our margins.
RAYMOND: Independent features, TV movies, miniseries and some TV series have to be very careful with their pennies, so they're most likely to shop around for low-cost spots. Jaffe says he's considering doing another project in Louisiana, now that he's finished "Elvis." It would cost about $6 million. He'd save a quarter of a million dollars if he stayed home in Los Angeles, but then Jaffe deducts Louisiana's several layers of tax incentives. His bill goes down to less than $5 million. And while he'd like to stay close to home in Los Angeles...
Mr. JAFFE: I'm not going to shoot somewhere where I'm going to go broke, which is why I don't shoot here. If they want to pass tax credits, the tax credits have to be sufficient to get my economic attention. They have to be equal to or better than the net benefit of the other places that I shoot in. By net benefit, I'm including the cost structure.
RAYMOND: Jaffe and others hope that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would make good on his earlier support for a tax credit in California this legislative session, but the budget passed recently without one. A spokesman for the governor says runaway production will remain a priority. For NPR News, I'm Anthea Raymond in Los Angeles.
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