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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Business

‘Dynamite’ opens avenues, eyes

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

In the film and television industry today, Toronto stands in for Chicago, New Orleans stands in for New York, and Vancouver, British Columbia, stands in for just about anywhere else, including Washington.

Idaho? Well, Idaho has Napoleon Dynamite, and it does not get much better than that.

The low-budget film by that name became the surprise hit of 2004, taking in almost $50 million at the box office.

Preston, Idaho, where the film was made, held a Napoleon Dynamite festival in June, and 6,000 people showed up, dropping an estimated $200,000 in the community. The local rodeo is bigger, but that’s been around for more than 50 years.

Napoleon conquered at the box office but, aside from publicity, little of that worked to Idaho’s benefit. Expectations for the movie were so low Preston businesses treated the project more like a charity than a customer. The movie that produced the biggest financial payoff for the state was “Dante’s Peak,” the volcano eruption movie that spewed $12 million into the Wallace-area economy in 1996.

If Idaho officials did not get the message from Dante about the potential windfall from movie production, they listened to Napoleon. The Legislature authorized formation of a film industry task force that includes lawmakers, industry officials and a representative from Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s office. The task force met for the first time last month in Sun Valley to discuss what incentives might attract more film and video work. Tax breaks, workforce training and aggressive marketing are among its goals. A November meeting is set for Coeur d’Alene, with a Film Day at the State Capitol for legislators scheduled in February.

Regionally, Oregon and Montana are out front. Neither has a sales tax, for one. But Montana thickens the plot with 15 percent rebates for use of in-state labor, and 10 percent for expenditures on hotels, gas, etc. Oregon will rebate 6.2 percent of wages with funds raised by selling income tax credits so popular the first $1 million were scooped up in six weeks. The 2006 and 2007 credits are also spoken for. MovieMaker magazine ranked Portland No. 8 among U.S. cities for film production, crediting Gov. Ted Kulongoski for saving the Oregon Film and Video Office and keeping film production on the state’s agenda. The office estimates more than $50 comes back to the state for every $1 of its $948,000 budget.

And Washington? Only the intercession of the Legislature prevented Gov. Christine Gregoire from killing off the State Film Office, as her predecessor had also tried to do. But lawmakers also wiped out a proposed appropriation to study the value of film and video production to the state. Meanwhile, estimated spending by the industry in Washington shrank to less than $15 million the last two years.

Fortunately, the industry refuses to give up. A task force has been formed and a lobbyist hired to draft legislation that would add to Washington’s short list of incentives — some sales and hotel tax forgiveness — for film and video makers. Simply reclassifying film-making to manufacturing industry from service industry would cut business and occupation taxes by two-thirds. But task force organizer Don Jensen, president of Alpha Cine Labs in Seattle, says he would like to see Washington put together a package similar to Oregon’s.

“We think it’s a model,” says Jensen, who adds that the industry has discovered it has friends in the Legislature who grasp the value of a clean industry like film production. The task force will be ready for the 2006 legislative session, he says.

The industry’s lobbyist, incidentally, will be Jim Hedrick, who also represents the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce in Olympia.

North by Northwest, Spokane’s major production company, has a stake in the Washington and Idaho discussions. President Rich Cowen is the only non-Idaho member of that state’s task force, and also participates in the Washington group. Cowan told a Seattle newspaper earlier this month he would consider relocation if Idaho enacts incentives and Washington does not.

There is little question incentives work, even if they just keep the sound stage level.

Louisiana went from industry bit player to superstar by tossing out tax credits like so many Mardi Gras beads. Five feature films were produced in the state in 2003, 27 film and TV features in 2004. The state estimates the industry injects more than $125 million into the economy, and employs 3,000. New Mexico has done equally well by offering rebates up to 20 percent for local spending.

If Idaho and Washington do not want Montana and Oregon for stand-ins, lawmakers must do something that will keep them on-stage. We want Hollywood thinking north by northwest.

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