There’s more than civic pride riding on Friday night’s premiere of “Z Nation,” the zombie-apocalypse TV show filmed and produced in Spokane.
It’s also become the symbolic centerpiece of Democratic state Senate challenger Rich Cowan’s pitch as the candidate with the best economic development résumé. Cowan’s studio, North By Northwest, is producing the 13-episode SyFy network series, which has brought the equivalent of about 200 full-time and mostly union-scale jobs to Spokane, as well as hundreds of other part-time opportunities.
“What’s great about doing a series like ‘Z Nation’ is it’s sustainable,” said Cowan, who co-founded the studio in 1990 and has been a key force in drawing Hollywood productions to the Inland Northwest for more than two decades. “The majority of these jobs include pension and health care benefits.”
But as Cowan moves to make the most of the debut, including a Friday night launch party at the Garland Theater featuring dozens of Spokane-area residents who were cast as extras in the series, the GOP is taking aim.
The incumbent, state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, has fought to secure state money for expanded medical school opportunities in Spokane during his first term. He’s also assisted the Inland Northwest’s growing aerospace industry, and pledged to ease what he calls burdensome government regulations.
“It’s about building good economic development clusters and the jobs that brings,” said Baumgartner, who led Cowan by 14 percentage points in last month’s primary. He also notes that he’s received the endorsements of the state’s largest business organizations, and taught economic development at Harvard University while earning his master’s degree.
“I think continuing to develop medical schools in Spokane is more important than our zombie movies,” Baumgartner said.
But with both candidates listing “job creation” among their top priorities for Spokane, and “Z Nation” getting a big cable rollout just five weeks before ballots begin arriving in voters’ mailboxes, zombies were bound to find their way into the political arena.
“I know what it’s like to build a business from the ground up,” Cowan said this week, noting that “Z Nation” marks another milestone in North By Northwest’s growth because it’s the first time the studio has handled all filming, editing and post-production work for an entire season of a TV series. “They’re talking about this series having, possibly, a five-year arc and I feel really good about what that’s bringing to Spokane.
“My opponent hasn’t started a business from scratch,” he added. “I don’t know of a single job he’s brought here.”
Republicans are downplaying Cowan’s film industry success, though, with Baumgartner noting that it’s relied on government subsidies.
Washington, like most states, offers tax breaks to lure Hollywood productions. Various incentives are available, depending on the type of production, but the state caps the overall total at $3.5 million per year.
State officials have long sought to lure an episodic series to Washington. In 2012, the Legislature reauthorized film incentives and created a new category that extended eligibility to production of TV series when at least $300,000 per episode is spent on in-state production. “Z Nation” became the first TV series to qualify for the incentives, which Washington Filmworks called a “game changer” for the Pacific Northwest’s film industry.
Most Spokane-area legislators, including Baumgartner, voted in favor of the legislation reauthorizing the tax credits. Baumgartner readily acknowledges his support for the incentives but said the industry, at some point, will have to stand on its own.
Cowan, meanwhile, dismisses any suggestion that he’s nothing more than a government-subsidized success story.
“I wish there were no film tax credits anywhere because we would be busier than ever,” he said. “But the reality is … there’s 42 states with these and there’s several countries, like Canada, that offer them too because they want these jobs.”
Cowan said the value of Washington state’s tax incentives are about at the middle of the pack.
“They’re important because we need a level playing field,” he said. “It would be wonderful not to have any of them, but how do you get 42 states to just drop them?”
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