Film industry gives state senators progress report on diversity hiring/tax credit bill at heated hearing

The film industry was bent on recommending improvements to the Illinois Film Production Tax incentive, while legislators focused hard on the progress of diversity hiring as central to a revised incentive bill during a lengthy three-hour hearing.

Around 75 supporters heard 17 persons testify before a panel of six state senators April 29 at the Thompson Center.

Heading the panel was Sen. Martin Sandoval, who was hearing about film industry issues for the first time. Sandoval is chairman of the senate’s Dept. of Commerce and Economic Opportunity committee, under whose auspices the hearing was called.

Sen. Ricky Hendon and Rep. Ken Dunkin, sponsors of the wage tax credit bill in their respective government branches, were invited panel guests who raised the temperature on diversity issues.

Some felt the two legislators “unfairly pummeled” IFO diversity officer Joyce Davis with their questions about minority hiring practices. When Dunkin asked if Davis were satisfied with the small increase in the minority hiring, Davis replied she was not, and said they could be “drastically improved.”

But she could only do so much, she said, as her office was a conduit of information and it’s not her job to recommend people for hire to producers. And it would be improper for her to do so since the IFO is a government bureau.

ACCENTING THE POSITIVE SIDE, Davis told of the IFO-sponsored on-going and well-attended job fairs and seminars, and how she is working with union on training programs.

Still, unions can only do so much, said Local 476’s Mark Hogan. “The hiring process is still the producer’s choice.”

Hogan said he would like to see “more new opportunities,” meaning more business and more jobs, which an improved wage tax credit bill could assure.

The importance of incentives needed to compete was emphasized by IPA president Eileen Willenborg. She said that despite the tax credit, Illinois lags behind other states in incentive packages. She noted New York’s 15% and Pennsylvania’s 20% rebate as being more robust than Illinois’ 9%.

The wage tax credit was extended another year until January, 2006, but not given the five-year life the industry has been asking for. The senate passed the revised bill, and it’s now in the house with the hope it will pass before the spring session ends May 31.

The revised bill provides an additional credit to companies that hire minorities and use minority vendors. It also is now transferable, and eliminates the need for out-of-state companies to have an Illinois partner.

WHILE VALID POINTS were raised about diversity hiring, supporters felt some of the testimony might have given the legislators, who are unfamiliar with film production, misconceptions about hiring practices.

Mike Phillips, a DGA first assistant director, told the panel that there had never been an African American first AD to work on a movie in Illinois. He did not inform the senators, however, of the several second and third assistant directors who work regularly on movies. DGA’s Dan Moore was not in attendance and could not refute Phillips’ statement.

“One ray of sunshine,” supporters agreed, was the testimony of Schumacher Camera manager James Polk, to which Sen. Sandoval reacted favorably. Polk spoke of the need for an infrastructure tax credit on the purchase of capital equipment investments. (See details below.*)

Supporters said caterer Willie Gatlin’s testimony was puzzling, since it did not support his position that people of color were not being hired because of prejudice.

Gatlin read a letter from a director who apparently wanted to hire him. The movie’s production manager, however, refused to do so. Not because of race, but because of information supplied by another production manager about alleged “discrepancies” over receipts submitted on a previous film.

Others testifying were AICP chapter president Mark Egmon,actor Craig Harris, DP Peter Kuttner, hair/makeup Lun Ye Marsh, production coordinator Heather Sharp, set decorator Velos Gomez, Local 476’s Mark Hogan and Local 600’s Jason Rosin.

Representing the DCEO were Chris Meister and Christie LeFleur and the IFO’s Brenda Sexton and diversity officer Joyce Davis.

* The infrastructure tax credit is designed to speed the growth of availability of film equipment and encourage minority-owned businesses to make needed investments to service the film industry.

It would provide a credit against Illinois income tax for the purchase of motion picture equipment and parts.

The proposed rate of the credit would be 10% for non-minority businesses, capped at a maximum credit of $25,000 per year; 15% for women-owned companies, capped at $50,000, and 25% for minority-owned.