Washington state is in the mood to woo
In “88 Minutes,” Al Pacino plays a professor who receives a death threat after testifying as a psychiatric witness for the FBI. The movie, like many ostensibly set in Seattle, was shot in Vancouver, Canada, where it was cheaper to produce.
Since the early 1990s, when the Seattle area drew productions such as the “Twin Peaks” television series and the film “Sleepless in Seattle,” business worth as much as $1 billion annually has migrated to Canada, mainly because of lower costs and provincial and federal tax breaks.
Now a group of Seattle film industry executives and lawyers is backing a bill for introduction in the Washington state Legislature that would create the state’s own incentives. The bill, to be presented next month, would set up a fund to reimburse filmmakers as much as $1 million per project, or 20% of the money they spend in the state. The fund would start with $5 million and probably increase over time.
“This has the possibility of bringing tens of millions of dollars into the state economy,” says Don Jensen, president of Alpha Cine Labs, a post-production company in Seattle, and a founder of the Washington Entertainment Industry Players Assn., which is behind the bill.
Without such breaks, Washington can’t compete with Canada or neighboring states such as Oregon and Idaho, which offer similar geographic terrain and have been more aggressive in luring productions, Jensen says. It’s been five years since the last big-budget production (a miniseries written by horror novelist Stephen King called “Rose Red”) was shot near Seattle.
The choice of Canada “was 90% based on cost,” says Mick Flannigan, a producer of “88 Minutes,” slated for release in 2006. “The other 10% is the film crews in Canada are very strong, with the amount of production that’s been rolling through there for the past 15 years.”
Even Louisiana has snared some of Seattle’s business.
The producers of “Deja Vu,” an action thriller starring Denzel Washington, were considering filming in Seattle to take advantage of Washington state’s extensive ferry system. “Louisiana offered them $14 million and they left,” says Suzy Kellett, director of the Washington State Film Office. “They said, ‘We’ll bring in the ferries.’ ”
Kellett declined to comment on the industry group’s proposal. Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire would consider any bill passed by the Legislature, says Althea Cawley-Murphree, a spokeswoman for the governor.
Film productions are valuable to local economies because they bring in jobs as well as tourism-related revenue and spending on hotels, restaurants and temporary housing for crew members.
More than $316 million was spent in 2001 on film and video production in Washington, supporting about 8,000 jobs, according to a study commissioned by the state film office (the most recent estimate available). Across the border, British Columbia garnered $687 million from film and TV production in 2004, almost double the amount in 1994, according to the provincial film commission.
“So many people think this is about entertainment,” says Kellett of Washington state’s film office. “This is about economic development.”
Tourists still flock to the lodge, coffee shop and mountains around North Bend and Snoqualmie, Wash., that were featured in director David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” series. Guidebooks point out the houseboats where exterior scenes of “Sleepless in Seattle” were filmed.
About 30 of 50 states provide some form of incentive to filmmakers. New York provides free police assistance for scenes that require blocking traffic.
Washington has lagged other states partly because the state constitution makes it difficult to grant favors to specific industries.