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Efforts aim to boost film industry in Yakima Valley

UPDATED: Mon., May 15, 2017, 3:54 p.m.

Grocery carts outside the Lep-Re-Kon grocery store in Zillah, Washington, are arranged in a “Carthenge” structure in a scene in the 2013 film “Cement Suitcase,” filmed in the Yakima Valley. (Cement Suitcase)
Grocery carts outside the Lep-Re-Kon grocery store in Zillah, Washington, are arranged in a “Carthenge” structure in a scene in the 2013 film “Cement Suitcase,” filmed in the Yakima Valley. (Cement Suitcase)

When Rick Castaqeda directed his first feature film, he didn’t want to shoot it in Los Angeles sites, which he calls clichi.

Instead, the Granger native returned to his roots in the Yakima Valley for his 2013 movie “Cement Suitcase.”

“We filmed a scene in a wheat field, and it looks like a completely different place,” said Castaqeda, co-founder of Psychic Bunny, which produced the movie about a top wine salesman and the problems in his life.

He’s not the only filmmaker to use Yakima County as a backdrop. Most recently, James Franco filmed part of his adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” in a Tieton area orchard using locally provided period agricultural equipment to capture the look of 1930s California.

The state’s film office, Washington Filmworks, and a Yakima County tourism advocate want more filmmakers to come here because movies and TV shows spark interest in the area and put money into the local economy.

But the film office is waiting to see how it fares as lawmakers debate the state budget, which includes the $3.5 million appropriation for the state’s film office. While a Yakima County lawmaker on the House Appropriations committee says there’s strong support, there is a slight possibility that Filmworks could end up on the budget-cutting block.

“It is a critical year for Washington Filmworks,” said its executive director, Amy Lillard. “If the program is not renewed this legislative session, the program will (close) on June 30.”

Yakima County got its first close-up in 1955’s “To Hell and Back.” The movie starred Audie Murphy, who played himself as one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of World War II. Filmed at the Yakima Training Center as well as then-Fort Lewis, now Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the movie used actual soldiers and was wildly successful at the box office.

Four years later, “The Hanging Tree” was filmed west of Naches. Gary Cooper starred in his last Western, playing a manipulative doctor in a Montana gold-mining camp. The movie also marked the screen debut of George C. Scott.

Other movies shot in the Yakima area, according to Filmworks, include “Cement Suitcase” “Contrition” and “In Dubious Battle,” which had its U.S. premiere in February.

And Lillard said it is not just feature filmmakers who look for locations in Yakima. In recent years, part of the ABC-TV series “Born to Explore” was filmed in the Yakima Valley, as was a virtual-reality film and a photographer’s drone demo reel.

While many film producers tend to look at the western part of the state, Lillard said her office also actively promotes Eastern Washington. Lillard also passes on filmmakers or photographers interested in Yakima sites to Yakima Valley Tourism for further help in identifying locales or with questions about when a particular crop will be coming into full bloom.

John Cooper, Yakima Valley Tourism’s president and CEO, said the valley’s geography gives crews a variety of shooting options.

“We have desert steppes that can be used to depict other dry places around the world, and we have agriculture sites and mountains,” Cooper said.

In the case of “In Dubious Battle,” producers were looking for apple orchards that had not been ravaged by the drought that had wracked California for years. Franco’s production company came to Tieton for the orchard, as well as the antique farm equipment provided by the Central Washington Agricultural Museum in Union Gap.

In addition to screen credit, the museum also received a donation from the production company, Cooper said, for providing trucks, ladders and other equipment.

For Castaqeda, it was not just getting away from a stereotypical L.A. look that brought him to the Lower Valley. The Valley, he noted, is friendly to filmmakers, with people who are willing to cooperate.

Among the locations he used for filming were the Lep-Re-Kon grocery store in Zillah, Dino Java in Granger and Airfield Estates Winery in Prosser. Then-Toppenish Police Chief Adam Diaz also makes a credited appearance in the film.

“I could not get the LAPD to appear in a film, at least not without spending a lot of money,” Castaqeda said.

Productions can also help highlight the area and, if popular enough, actually bring tourists to wander where their screen heroes walked, Cooper said. For instance, Forks has seen a spike in tourists because of the movies based on Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series of books, which are set in the Olympic Peninsula community but were actually filmed in other parts of the state.

Likewise, Roslyn in Kittitas County became a mecca for fans of the TV series “Northern Exposure,” which was filmed there.

There are also the economic benefits, as film crews have to hire extras, rent lodgings and buy food from local businesses. Even productions on the west side of Washington have spent money with Yakima-area firms, Lillard said, although she declined to identify the businesses involved.

“It hits every sector of the economy,” Lillard said.

But stunning scenery or lush orchards and vineyards are not always enough to persuade a filmmaker to come to the area. It usually takes some cold, hard cash.

Filmworks offers an incentive program for filmmakers who plan to spend at least a half-million dollars in the state on their films. TV series need to spend $300,000 per episode while commercials only have to meet a $150,000 threshold.

Qualified production companies can receive cash up to 30 percent of their in-state filmmaking budget, Lillard said.

For each dollar Filmworks provides, Lillard said there’s a return of $10 to the state’s economy.

But she and Cooper acknowledge there’s stiff competition from neighboring British Columbia and Oregon, which spend more money promoting themselves to filmmakers.

Oregon, Lillard said, allocates $14 million a year to its film office, compared to the $3.5 million that goes to Filmworks.

Lillard said lack of funding resulted in the state losing $107 million in economic activity because it had to turn away filmmakers seeking assistance.

This year’s proposed budget calls for renewing the $3.5 million annual spending for the next 10 years, as well as including an extra $3 million to be given to a film production company that is willing to spend $20 million in the state on a film that depicts a “significant historical event” in the state by 2019.

If the money is not spent, the extra $3 million will be returned to the state’s general fund, Lillard said.

While the bill has support on both sides of the aisle, and with film and tourism groups lobbying on its behalf, it’s in a holding pattern. Lawmakers were to have had the budget done in April, but an impasse on education spending prompted a special session.

“I think we still have an opportunity to get (Filmworks’ appropriation) in there,” said Rep. Bruce Chandler, the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Chandler, a Granger Republican, said the bill has strong support in the House, and the Democratic House and Republican Senate are relatively close in their budget proposals.

Castaqeda, whose film did not qualify for incentive support from Filmworks, supports efforts to keep the office open and even boost its ability to attract other productions to the state.

“Incentives do help bring jobs in,” Castaqeda said. “It creates an ecosystem for filmmakers, and it helps the economy as well.”

And he would consider coming back to make another film.


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