Wisconsin partisan politics blamed for playing havoc with film incentive date

The highly acclaimed Film Wisconsin incentives appear to be the best thing that could happen to? Illinois.

About $78 million worth of movies that were interested in filming in Wisconsin thanks to the incentives is languishing as election year politics shoved the enactment date back 18 months to a distant Jan. 1, 2008.

“We could’ve landed a good portion of that business if the effective date had been rightly put in place,” said Scott Robbe, a founder of volunteer Film Wisconsin organization, which was outraged by politics triggering the loss of millions of dollars of revenue needed by a state ranking 37th in poverty.

“But there’s nothing we can do right now to secure that business. It’s really unbelievable what went down.”

This past spring, the incentives bill crafted by Film Wisconsin sailed through both houses of the Wisconsin legislature.

The proposed enactment date was set for May 30, the day the governor signed the bill.

But by the time the bill reached the governor, a last-minute amendment to push the date back had been tacked on by Republican co-chairmen Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and Rep. Dean Kaufert of the powerful Finance Committee.

“I felt like I was sucker-punched when I heard the news of the delaying tactic,” said Film Wisconsin co-founder Michael Graf of award-winning Spot Filmworks of Madison,

“I guess the good senators didn’t want to give our Democratic governor anything to promote in his upcoming election campaign.

“It saddens me to think that partisan politics are more important in Wisconsin than creating jobs, supporting the arts and building an industry infrastructure,” Graf added.

Both Robbe and Graf spoke disbelievingly of Commerce Secretary Mary Burke who asked Wisconsin Arts Board president George Tzougros, “Why is the industry stirring up all this business if the incentives don’t go into effect until 2008?”

Commented Graf, “It would seem it’s Mary Burke’s job to stir up business, not to turn it away.”

Incentives stirred an outpouring of inquiries

Even without proactive PR outreach since May 30, the Badger state was being considered for $77.5 million in production expenditures had the incentives been available at the date originally set.

Visit Milwaukee spokesman David Fantle has been fielding an average of two calls a day from producers who are interested in filming in Wisconsin.

“The spigot is open, and are we going to seize this opportunity to start a film economy now, bringing potentially tens of millions of dollars in the next year and a half, or are we going to slam the door shut?” Fantle said.

One of the movies was literally made for Wisconsin, the $7 million “Poker Brat” about Madison poker player Phil Hellmuth Jr.

While most of serious inquiries were for indies in the $1.5-$7 million range, they had such interested stars as Nick Nolte, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alec Baldwin, David Strathairn and William H. Macy who would dust the state with some much needed glamour.

A movie with the biggest budget of $30 million would have starred Dame Judy Dench.

“The only good news to come out of this is that the Film Wisconsin efforts helped spur Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa to revise their incentives packages,” said Graf.

A Film Wisconsin goal was to form a Midwest film corridor, or as Robbe said, “a Third Coast of film production.” A benefit to Chicago crews would have been the opportunity to work on Wisconsin-made movies.

Despite the set-back, the Film Wisconsin group will continue to fight for a resolution and change to an immediate enactment date that allows them to capitalize on the initial outpouring of interest.

“We’ll know the answer within the next two weeks,” said Robbe. “As of now, it’s an absolute disaster.”