Cut! Va.’s film industry fears losing competitive edge

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 3, 2008

RICHMONDnThe red carpet was rolled out in front of the Byrd Theatre for the premiere of the HBO miniseries “John Adams.” Executive producer Tom Hanks and actor Paul Giamatti, who plays Adams, attended, as did Gov. Tim Kaine. Hundreds of cast and crew were invited, and crowds filled the sidewalks to catch a glimpse of celebrity.

Despite the premier’s flashbulbs and fanfare, new film projects n some that are even set in the state n are bypassing Virginia for location shootings in other states offering competitive incentive packages.

From major-studio directors to independent amateurs, filmmakers say they’d like to work in Virginia, but they can’t afford to because the state doesn’t provide enough financial help.

According to the Virginia Production Alliance, 10 major filmmakers that considered production in Virginia chose to film elsewhere at a cost to the commonwealth’s economy of $356 million since 2006.

Robert Griffith, a filmmaker based in Virginia for more than three decades, created his latest documentary, “Movie Making in Virginia: Take 3,” to educate more than the public about the commonwealth’s film industry. Griffith said the documentary is aimed at lawmakers, as well.

“They’re not informed enough about how large this industry is,” Griffith said. “Virginia has a tremendous amount of talented people working in this business on a regular basis.”

During the session that ran from Jan. 9 through March 13, the General Assembly rejected bills that would have created tax credits for film companies working in the commonwealth and would have expanded the sales- and income-tax exemptions currently available.

Virginia, along with six other states, does not offer an incentive program to filmmakers. The incentives would provide a rebate on a percentage of the film’s budget to filmmakers who locate their projects in Virginia.

The only break offered to filmmakers this session is a sales-tax exemption on certain purchases, such as for hotels and food. Those exemptions were set to expire in 2009, but the General Assembly pass legislation, House Bill 711, to eliminate the sunset date for the tax exemptions and allow them to continue indefinitely.

Another program intended to attract filmmakers to Virginia, the Governor’s Motion Picture Opportunity Fund, was created in 2006. The fund is used at the governor’s discretion to attract film projects to the commonwealth and to encourage local productions. Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, and Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, submitted budget amendments to request $4 million a year for the fund.

Although those amendments were killed in committee, a request by Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, R-Newport News, for $200,000 a year was included in the final House budget bill.

Todd Raviotta is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s photography and film department. He also is first vice president of the Virginia Production Alliance.

Raviotta said any money would help, and the amount appropriated by the House is far from what Virginia needs to attract more film projects.

“We need a war chest for films to get some real projects,” he said.

If $200,000 were put in the fund, one or two independent features probably would be produced in Virginia, Raviotta said, and at least one major studio film might be attracted to film in the commonwealth. The $4 million initially requested could have netted the commonwealth up to 30 projects within the next two years, he said.

“One thing the General Assembly may not realize is that there are a ton of films to be made. There are more than enough to go around,” Raviotta said. “Will we get one to four a year or 10 to 15 a year?”

Rita McClenney, director of the Virginia Film Office, said the company is hoping for a well-funded program.

“There’s eight films that want to film in Virginia (that) I hope we can recruit,” McClenney said. “We’ll keep marketing as we have, but certainly it’s not realistic that we can compete with states without an incentive program.”

Among the eight films McClenney hopes to recruit are “Secretariat,” “Big Stone Gap” and “The Man Who Moved a Mountain.” All three films are set in Virginia, and the films’ combined budgets amount to $65 million.

“We can certainly see the power … an epic film can have on Virginia,” McClenney said about the historical miniseries “John Adams.”

“It was very significant from a revenue standpoint. Lots of businesses made money and lots of Virginians were hired,” McClenney said.

In his documentary, Griffith highlights how attracting the “John Adams” miniseries to film on location in Virginia was a victory for the local film industry. The commonwealth was chosen instead of Connecticut as the location for the production.

Griffith’s film also explains how Virginia lost Richard Kelly’s “The Box” to Connecticut because of Connecticut’s incentives. “The Box,” set in Richmond, was written and directed by Kelly, a Midlothian native.

Connecticut implemented an incentive program after losing the “John Adams” production. This program attracted the producers of “The Box,” which stars Cameron Diaz and has a budget of more than $30 million.

The exodus of film jobs from Virginia is a trend Raviotta finds troubling.

“That’s one of my biggest fears and something I confront every day,” Raviotta said. “I have trouble sometimes finding freelance gigs for myself, let alone (for) these people I’ve gotten excited, taught them the basics of how to put together a film. Is there going to be a place for them to start work on Monday?”

Raviotta estimated that only a fraction of VCU film students remain in Virginia to work in a film-related jobs. Of Raviotta’s graduating film class of 15 people, he said, no more than three stayed in Virginia.

Griffith also is concerned about the flight of “creatives and crew” from the commonwealth.

“If we’re not competitive, then we will continue to lose good talent. We will lose our crew base,” Griffith said. “As that diminishes, that makes it harder for people to stay here and make films, and also to solicit filmmakers from the outside.”

The House and Senate bills intending to expand tax incentives have been continued to the 2009 session for committee review.

“One of the things that will come from this year’s effort (is) more research will be put in from the General Assembly’s side,” Raviotta said. “If they are finally serious about studying this and (if they) see the impact, that’s good.”

Alexander Harris is a Virginia Commonwealth University student and a reporter for Capital News Service.