Bert Caldwell: Fund would keep state in the picture

Money from a new fund intended to boost Washington’s film and video industry could seal a deal that would keep 40 Spokane cameramen, electricians, lighting technicians and other movie professionals busy year-round.

North by Northwest Productions President Rich Cowen says he has a contract in hand that would have his crew shooting two $1 million movies a year for a major cable network. Combined with other work the Spokane company has lined up, the deal would keep not just his crew employed, but perhaps two dozen other workers as well.

Cowen says $200,000 in state funds per movie is the difference between a production budget that fades to black, or one he has to leave on the table.

“I can’t make the deal work unless the incentive works,” he says.

The incentives Cowen wants would be drawn from a new fund created this year by the Legislature, which wanted to prevent Washington from becoming a bit player in the film industry. Movie production jobs pay well, and lots more money is thrown around on food, construction materials and other needs. To attract movie-makers, most states, including Idaho, Montana and Oregon, provide some form of assistance or tax relief.

Washington’s toughest competitor is British Columbia, where the network Cowen is reluctant to mention now does most of its movie production. The province owns a sound stage, and provides tax credits.

By comparison, what Washington offers is modest; a maximum $3.5 million per year provided by corporations that can count their contribution as a credit against their business and occupation tax payments. The funds could cover 20 percent of production costs, up to a maximum $1 million per project. Projects will be funded on a first-come, first-serve basis. When all the money is committed — and there is no guarantee the fund will collect the full $3.5 million every year — the payout window closes until the following year.

Because the program is just a few months old, only $900,000 has been committed for the 2006 calendar year, but more than half that sum comes from two Spokane companies: Avista Corp. and Washington Trust Bank. Good for them.

Those early pledges should put North by Northwest center stage when the Motion Picture Competitiveness Board meets Tuesday to approve application forms. In fact, board member Harry Sladich says he hopes to have an already filled out application from North by Northwest in his pocket when the panel convenes.

If there are no changes in the draft form, he plans to put Cowen’s application on the table and ask for a vote.

“I’m going to go in there and get the money, right now,” says Sladich, who is also president of the Spokane Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The fund is intended to help sustain family-wage jobs with benefits, exactly what Cowen expects he can do with his cable contract, Sladich says.

“We can stay pretty busy if this incentive thing works out for us,” says Cowen, who lobbied hard for government support in Boise as well as Olympia. The prospect of state help allowed North by Northwest to lower its bid for the cable contract, he says.

His two latest productions, he notes, attracted investment from out of the country as well as the state. “Home of the Brave,” which premiered last week in Los Angeles, was financed in Germany. Shooting took place in Spokane earlier this year.

Sladich, meanwhile, plans to raise Spokane’s profile at the Sundance Film Festival next month by joining forces with Seattle, which sponsors a party presented by Sub Pop Records. The CVB will also launch a new Web site,, that will expand the information available on film and video production in Spokane.

Spokane, in film-making as in so many other businesses, has unusually deep resources for a city its size. The local talent pool also includes Corner Booth Productions and Hamilton Photography and Film.

Area officials worked hard in Olympia to get the cameras rolling. The film board should start the action next week.

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