June 13, 2013

Bill would woo movie, TV production companies with tax break

Financial incentive sought to augment state's natural beauty, unusual quality of light as lure for production companies

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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click image to enlarge

Eric Matheson is working to convert the South Portland Armory, seen here on May 22, into a movie sound stage.

Maine Sunday Telegram photo by John Patriquin

Strunk spent $1.5 million making his movie, including $400,000 in and around Rockland on food, lodging and supplies. He raised almost the entirety of his budget through individual investors, who put up a few thousand dollars each.

It took him more than two years to make the film, shooting segments each time he raised enough capital. His total out-of-pocket expenses were $37,000.

"I hired the helicopter right off my credit card," Strunk said. "It's been beg, borrow and steal all the way."

Making a movie in Maine is challenging, Strunk said, because the state offers a relatively small incentive package to filmmakers compared with other states in the Northeast and the Canadian Maritimes.

Email records from the Maine Film Office, procured through a Freedom of Access Act request from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, showed that in the past calendar year, the vast majority of filmmakers who inquired about shooting in Maine were small, independent artists.

The dozen or so producers, directors and others who emailed the office mostly were curious about the process of applying for incentives or had questions about specific locations.

According to those records, the Maine Film Office had no contact with large producers such as Baer. That's because Maine is known in the industry for having poor to mediocre incentives, said Timothy Rhys, editor of the California-based MovieMaker Magazine and a former Portland resident.

Until those incentives improve, he said, filmmakers won't consider coming to Maine.

"Maine seems to be trying to attract filmmakers to the state by saying, 'It's Maine.' But that's just not the way films are made," Rhys said. "Lower-budget, independent films might have a shot with that kind of strategy, but it is not going to attract the big players.

"The game-changers are the feature films. If Maine had a string of those like Louisiana has had, like Massachusetts has had to some degree, then Maine could compete. Maine does not need to have the best incentives in the country, but it does need to be competitive. Maine's leaders have not allowed the industry to be competitive in a place where it should naturally be."

Maine enacted its first tax-break incentives for filmmakers in 2007 and has improved them once. Other attempts to beef them up have failed.

Moviemakers are waiting for an incentive package that provides tangible financial benefits before they will consider filming in Maine, Rhys said.

Questions about incentives

Incentives are a big issue in the movie industry, and they've become a hot-button topic in legislatures.

Louisiana was the first state to offer incentives for filmmakers, beginning in 1991. Other states followed, and now video production companies factor incentives into their budget-planning process.

"From our standpoint, we look at it as a key component to activating a production. It has become a part of how we put together our financing plans," said Brian Gary, a senior vice president at Sennet Entertainment in Los Angeles, which made the movie "Bag of Bones," based on another Stephen King novel, in Nova Scotia instead of Maine. "It's become intrinsic in how we put together film and TV projects."

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, promises a vigorous debate on L.D. 1409.

"The bill has merit," he said. "Anytime we look at doing something for the arts is a good thing for the state of Maine. It can be a niche that can fit right into what many people think of the state of Maine.

"But at the end of the day, we need to figure out how to fund it. That is where the challenge will come. There are a lot of competing priorities in the budget right now."

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