Film offices killed by statewide budget cuts are finding new ways to continue operating

Only Illinois and Michigan film offices remain in existence among the once-strong Great Lakes state confederacy.

Cash-strapped states?not just in the Midwest but throughout the U.S.?let the budget-cutting ax fall on film offices. They tend to see them more of an unnecessary frill than an economy booster.

The name of the game is incentives. Without a meaningful and competitive package, many state governments (with notable exceptions) are generally unwilling to play the game and that leads to permanently benching their film offices.

The ax fell on the Indiana film office when a major incentive provision failed to pass the legislature, barely six weeks after Wisconsin announced the closing of its office.

The 23-year-old Indiana office employed two, director Jane Rulon and project manager Chris Pohl, and had a budget under $100,000. It was headquartered in Indianapolis.

Indiana’s dynamic, newly-formed quasi-state economic development organization, however, has put film activity in its sights as an economic benefit. With the muscle of its president, entrepreneur Mickey Maurer, it could persuade the legislature to rethink those incentives.

Bitterly disappointed over the June 30 closing of its 19-year-old film office, but determined not to let the ball drop, Wisconsin filmmakers and businesses are attempting to replace it with a private, non-profit organization.

“We’re working under the name Film Wisconsin, a name that’s well known already, although it’s not finalized,” said producer Scott Robbe, one of several leaders in the privatizing movement.

Film Wisconsin has asked the state to turn over its web site and other assets, and Robbe is hoping for “an orderly transfer by July 1.”

Film Wisconsin is getting set to apply for a 501c3 non-profit status; in the meanwhile Arts Wisconsin will be the fiscal recipient of funds. “We’re working on our business plan, asking folks in the industry what they want this office to do. That will be the basis of our mission statement,” Robbe said.

The WIO located in Madison had a staff of two, Mary Idso and Scott Thom, and operated on a $125,000 budget.

The new offices forming in Indiana and Wisconsin might take a page from Minnesota’s book. For 20-plus years, that state’s film office function has been performed by the unique public-private Minnesota Film and TV Board.

Since the Board’s main function is to sell the state as a film location, its $175,000 funding comes from Northspan Economic Development. But the Board then must fund three times that amount, or $525,000, from private sources.

The Board has been very successful in finding private partners and grants, says Ricki McManus, who since 1996 has run the Upper Minnesota Film Office. Meaghan McGuire is the film liaison in the Minneapolis office.

Since Minnesota is shy on incentives, the Film Board did some innovative thinking, notes McManus, and came up with a point-of-purchase incentive to attract the Charlize Theron feature “Class Action” which did film in Upper Minnesota’s Iron Range.

The program involved a wide range of stores that put up signage and POP banners announcing discounts off the top of purchase of at least 15% on purchases. It was such a success that the Board will put it in effect across the state.

Michigan keeps rolling along after 23 years with only director Janet Lockwood and her current paid student assistant Mike Foster in Lansing. Lockwood’s budget is around $125,000.

Illinois has the biggest Midwestern film office and one of the biggest among all film commissions. Located in Chicago, and not the state capitol like the others, it has a staff of eight, including director Brenda Sexton, and an operating budget of $1 million.

Illinois also boasts a substantial tax incentive that should prove to lawmakers that significant incentives are a big draw.

Should other incentives be added, such as a rebate on the 6% transitional or use tax on capital investments and supplies, along with various investor credits on facilities and scripts set in Illinois, Chicago could easily become Hollywood on the Lake.