The “Twilight” movies about vampires and werewolves are set in Forks, Wash., but are mostly filmed in Oregon.
“The Killing,” a cable television murder mystery series, was set in Seattle but mostly filmed in Vancouver, B.C.
The pilot for a new sitcom, “Thunder Balls,” was set and filmed in Spokane. But if it is picked up by a network, the future episodes might be filmed elsewhere, even if it keeps its Lilac City setting.
The reason: Other states can entice film producers with better tax incentives.
Washington, which in 2002 was one of the first states to offer incentives to lure television and movie productions, this year became among the first to drop them.
“We can’t compete without it,” Rich Cowan, chief executive officer of Spokane-based production company North by Northwest, said of the tax incentive, which involved a credit against business and occupation taxes.
North by Northwest averaged about four films a year for the past six years, Cowan said. They weren’t Hollywood blockbusters; some went straight to cable television or the DVD market. But thanks in part to the tax incentive, it was enough to keep film crews working steadily, bring on makeup artists and set designers and provide work for local actors.
Spokane has a variety of locations and architecture, and local officials are good to work with, Cowan said. The company has shot some 40 films in the Spokane area, although many are set elsewhere. Five or six were set in New York, he said.
The company just completed the pilot for “Thunder Balls,” a comedy that revolves around a Spokane bowling alley. If a network picks it up, production could begin later this summer on a season’s worth of episodes.
“We want to keep it in Spokane; that’s kind of the brass ring,” Cowan said. But without the tax incentive, the network might move production for the rest of the series to another state that offers a better deal. They may send a crew back to Spokane for a day or two to get a few outside shots of local landmarks, like Spokane Falls or Riverfront Park, to work into the series and create the impression that it’s filmed in the area.
That’s what producers did for “The Killing,” a gritty crime drama about a Seattle high school student who is murdered and found in the trunk of a car leased by a local political campaign. Shots of the Space Needle and the Seattle skyline figured prominently in the show, but most of the exterior scenes were shot 200 miles north in Vancouver.
In arguing for the state’s film tax credit to be renewed, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells, D-Seattle, prime sponsor of the bill to extend Washington’s tax credits, said producers were afraid the credits would expire, and British Columbia offered a better deal.
Kohl-Wells was among Democrats who were openly critical of offering tax breaks to businesses at a time when programs for children, schools, colleges, the poor and the elderly were being cut. But she defended the motion picture tax credit, and a study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee last December also supported it.
Incentives prompted film production companies to spend about $36 million in the state between 2002 and 2009, the committee said, and every $1 spent generated almost $2 worth of “economic activity” as the money moved through the economy.
Tax incentives for the film industry do have critics. A study by the Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation argued that the jobs they create are usually short term, and don’t offer much opportunity for advancement.
“The only thing these incentives create is the need for ongoing credits and subsidies. As other states sweeten their subsidies, productions move on,” said the foundation’s William Luther, who wrote the study that called the incentives “Blockbuster Support for Lackluster Policy.”
Cowan said that may be a bigger problem for states that go after large Hollywood productions, which do come in for a few weeks of filming. They often bring most of their production workers with them, so it’s a boost to the hotels, restaurants and bars while they stay, but not much help to what he calls “ongoing indigenous workers.”
But Washington’s credit for business and occupation taxes, which was paired with a grant program administered by the Washington Film Works board, also attracted the smaller films that North by Northwest thrives on, Cowan said.
“We don’t want to do big theatrical films. It’s way better to do smaller movies … and spread the jobs around,” he said.
Last year, 44 states were offering some sort of incentive to film inside their borders. So far this year, however, six have canceled or scaled back their incentives, and others are debating them.
In Idaho, the Legislature approved an incentive program but when the budget was written, no money was appropriated for it.
Washington’s incentive expired more as a byproduct of legislative infighting than outright opposition to the concept. A bill to extend the current tax incentive for six years passed the Senate and received near unanimous support from the House Ways and Means Committee in the closing days of the special session. But it never came up for a vote in the full House because a bill sought by leaders in that chamber didn’t get a vote in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, a supporter of the incentive and a co-sponsor of the bill that died in the final hours of the special session, said she’ll work to revive it next year. Like Cowan, she’s more interested in incentives that attract films that will hire local workers and actors rather than the big Hollywood production companies.
“We need some kind of incentive,” Brown said. “It’s not necessarily going to seal the deal, but it will make it so we’re going to get looked at.”