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No Money, No Problem?

Matthew McConaughey in The Beach Bum (courtesy of Neon/Vice)

They’re the two most beautiful words in the cinematic language: tax credits. Almost no one who practices the seventh art got into it to learn about business; if anything, they got into it to avoid it altogether. Alas, it’s almost impossible to participate in the most expensive art form without being at least semi-fluent in business jargon. State film tax incentives are a crucial part of most American films’ financing these days, be they giant Marvel productions filming in incentive-rich Atlanta or a tiny indie shooting in Albuquerque, mere miles from the set of Better Call Saul.

As of this writing, 32 American states—plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands—boast programs of varying sizes and types. But that means 18 states—almost one-third of the country—are off the grid. Some states lost what were once rich statewide tax incentive programs. Montana, for example, lost its in 2017, although a grant program remains. (As of this writing, the state is working at the legislative level to debate the future of proposals involving sales tax, incentives and arts funding.) But does this mean you can cross these doezn-and-a-half states off your preproduction list? No way. These states still manage to attract productions. For filmmakers and these states’ film commissions, the effort simply requires some hard—or harder—work.

Perhaps the most surprising state with no statewide incentive program is Florida. Thousands and thousands of productions, from blockbusters to commercials, have shot in the Sunshine State since the birth of motion pictures, most recently such lofty titles as Moonlight, Life and Nothing More and, of course, The Florida Project. But the number used to be higher. That’s because its program was halted around 2015.

“Without a funded statewide program to help bring projects and companies to our state, in the past four years Florida has lost more than 60 major film and television projects that would have spent more than $1 billion dollars in Florida,” says John Lux, executive director of Film Florida, a nonprofit not associated with the state’s film office that is dedicated to creating jobs within the local film industry. “That’s a tremendous hit to the 50,000 Floridians who work in the industry.”

Instead, productions that once would have filmed in Florida have turned to nearby lookalike states. The original Magic Mike shot in Tampa; the sequel was shot in South Carolina and Georgia. The latter also played home to Ben Affleck’s Tampa-set Live by Night, while Atlanta has become a mini-Hollywood. The HBO show Ballers—one of the last two productions to receive statewide incentives, along with Netflix’s Bloodline—moved to California for its third season. It was, Lux told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune last year, like a “flip of a switch.” The state, he estimated, had lost more than $1 billion in the last three years, plus tens of thousands of crew jobs.

Film Florida still gets calls, though Lux says the first question tends to be about incentives. What can they tell callers? A lot, actually. Florida has Film Florida, for one—an experienced service dedicated to bringing jobs to the state by keeping productions happy while they shoot. That includes working with them on their budget and showing them the quirks of how local business works. Florida is also one of the few states with (hurricanes excepted) generally production-friendly weather. “There are not many, if any, states that can double for almost any location in the world,” Lux says. “Other than snow and mountains, you can find any location in Florida.”

Since the death of the state’s tax incentive program, Film Florida has had to make do, namely by finding their audience and zeroing in on it. Their most frequent clients these days are commercials and independent films—high-end titles (like Trey Edward Shults’s star-studded, A24-backed musical Waves and Harmony Korine’s Matthew McConaughey–starring The Beach Bum) and legitimately independent productions.

One reason, claims Lux, is that, oddly enough, neither are as reliant on incentives as big-budget Hollywood productions are. Commercials don’t qualify for incentives, and neither do a lot of indie budgets—and even if they do qualify, the incentives won’t make much of a difference anyway. Lux adds, “20 percent of $1 million is a much smaller dollar amount than 20 percent of $20 million.” 

That said, it’s not like Florida has zero tax incentives. Lux points out that productions can still participate in a statewide sales tax exemption program, saving up to 7.5 percent in sales tax on select production-related expenses. On top of that, there are currently seven counties, plus a few cities, with local incentive programs. Lux hopes more counties will join forces after seeing how productions affect local economies. 

“Not having a statewide program puts us at a competitive disadvantage,” Lux says. “However, there is no substitute for good service. Whether it’s us as an association, our state film office or the local film commissioners throughout the state, everyone works very hard to show how Florida is the perfect destination for a project.”

Nebraska doesn’t have the cinematic cachet of Florida—or does it? After all, there’s Nebraska, the 2013 hit from Alexander Payne. Payne, an Omaha native, has stayed true to his homeland, shooting the bulk of his work—except the Hawaii-set The Descendants—in the state’s wide open (and suburban) spaces. Recently, Joel and Ethan Coen hunkered down in Sioux County, in the state’s deep northwest, for parts of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The pool scene from Andrea Arnold’s American Honey was filmed in Bennington, Nebraska, while Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, mostly shot in South Dakota (a tax incentive-free wild, too), journeyed southward to film on location in Omaha and Rushville, Nebraska.

Alas, the most recent significant production to turn Nebraska-bound, Buster Scruggs, did its filming back in 2017. Laurie Richards, the state’s film officer, says most productions have been tiny titles for VOD or Redbox, some episodic television that airs exclusively on online platforms and a fair amount of low-budget horror films. “We are at a disadvantage for attracting larger studio-driven projects without any statewide incentive,” Richards says. That said, like Florida, smaller locations, often local municipalities, offer incentives. Richards says that the cities of Fremont and Valentine, Nebraska, have used incentives successfully, while Scottsbluff—one of the homes for Buster Scruggs—has been offering incentives as well.

Nebraska’s film office isn’t thinking outwardly, though; instead, they’re turning local. “Our focus is to nurture and grow the industry from within,” Richards says. On top of oft-returning natives, like Payne and Christine Conradt (of TV movies like 2017’s 12 Days of Giving), there are the state’s popular film schools, many film festivals and local documentarians, who often film Nebraska-specific subjects. (Brigitte Timmerman’s recent UmoNhoN Iye The Omaha Speaking, for instance, looks at the loss of the Omaha language.) “As the democratization of the medium and availability of distribution are ever expanding, Nebraska’s bright and engaging storytellers are all busy working on their craft, at a variety of levels and distribution opportunities,” Richards says. “We are easy to work with. We have locations people want. We are trustworthy and like to help and see projects succeed.”

In 2016, after years of mostly documentary shorts, the filmmaker Kogonada decided to make his first feature, Columbus, a drama with a strong nonfiction bent. The film would be in part a study of Columbus, Indiana, and its architectural marvels, which he’d discovered via an article in The New York Times. Lead actors Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho would walk around town, talking at length about structures and sculptures designed by the likes of I. M. Pei, Richard Meier, Robert Venturi, César Pelli and Eero Saarinen. The only problem: Indiana didn’t—and still doesn’t—have a state tax incentive program.

Amy Howell, director of Film Indiana, says that wasn’t ever a problem. Once Kogonada saw the buildings in person, he was sold. The state boasts few tax breaks; the closest is an exemption, in some counties, from the county innkeeper’s tax, provided cast and/or crew have an at least 30-day hotel stay. And yet Indiana, Howell says, still attracts 200-plus productions per year, of which commercials and TV are the most popular. The state’s production directory lists almost 700 crew members.

Howell says the film office was never contacted by the staff of one of the more recent prominent productions in the state: Frederick Wiseman’s 42nd nonfiction film, Monrovia, Indiana. (The legendary filmmaker prefers to find his locations organically, by talking to locals, not by contacting film offices.) The state does have a good relationship with filmmaker Paul Shoulberg, who’s worked with private companies to fund name-cast indies such as 2017’s The Good Catholic and the forthcoming Ms. White Light.

“It’s really all about locations and Hoosier hospitality,” Howell says. “Indiana has a variety of diverse settings to choose from, including forests, lakes, large cities and small towns. Hoosier hospitality is a real thing. The people of Indiana will go out of their way to make it easy on filmmakers and help them in any way.”

The statewide tax incentive program in Michigan was killed in 2015—not long after one of the priciest productions ever shot there: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which filmed the bulk of its scenes in Detroit and elsewhere across the state. As in Florida, the Michigan decision was a blow to a strong local filmmaking community that had seen a surge in visiting productions, especially in and around Detroit, which had become a locus of fascination and anxiety after the city declared bankruptcy in 2013.

Since then, Michigan has still attracted upscale productions, but mostly for small portions or b-roll. The home invasion thriller Don’t Breathe was set in Detroit, but the bulk of it, inside a house, was filmed in Hungary. Despite its gritty bona fides, Kathryn Bigelow’s docudrama Detroit was forced by budget concerns to film mostly in Brockton, Massachusetts, with only bits in the city that bears its name. White Boy Rick also told a Detroit story but had to film mostly in Ohio. The Old Man & the Gun, a road picture, counted Michigan among the many states in which it made its brief home, as did Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9.

According to Tony Garcia at the Michigan Film and Digital Media Office (MFDMO), the focus post-2015 has, like in Nebraska, been redirected largely toward local filmmakers with homegrown productions, as well as nonfiction. “With the auto industry roaring back and the city of Detroit emerging from the 2013 bankruptcy stronger than ever, a great deal of documentary filmmakers have been drawn to Michigan recently,” Garcia explains. “Independent filmmaking is on the rise, as up-and-coming talents and industry veterans find a union to make their passion projects.”

MFDMO remains committed to providing its many other services, from guidance on state and local permitting to crew searches and lots of help with location scouting. (Its hefty online database features detailed case studies going back to old Michigan-shot titles like Die Hard 2, Prancer, even Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom classic Anatomy of a Murder.) It also continues to promote Michigan as a state worthy of your production at festivals like Sundance and SXSW, as well as in trade publications.

Michigan’s big success story post-incentives is another production with its biggest city in the title: Detroiters, the Comedy Central sitcom that ran for two seasons from 2017 to 2018. The show, which followed two ad men (played by southeast Michigan natives Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson) struggling to help revive their city, needed Detroit itself. When they began prepping in summer 2015, the statewide tax program still existed, and the show was approved for incentives. The Detroiters pilot was filmed.

By October of that year, Detroiters was greenlit for a full season—and Michigan’s statewide tax program was dead. Neither MFDMO nor the city of Detroit wanted to lose a show that would bring the city money and jobs, as well as future major productions. So they created the Detroit Film Initiative (DFI), a public–private partnership that isn’t a tax incentive program but does supply perks like streamlined city services, customer service and help with coordinating “creative and business opportunities to provide cost savings.” In return, shows promise to work with local business and crew, as well as supply “meaningful work” for Detroit youth.

Team Detroiters reported a happy experience, enough to return for its second (and, alas, final) season. Since then, MFDMO has worked to expand the DFI as well as inspire other municipalities throughout Michigan to launch their own local programs. 

The 10 other states that don’t have statewide tax incentive programs tend to boast the same stories: great locations, various sizes of local crew, a history of classic and semi-recent titles of note, and an eager and helpful media office. Sometimes their film office websites mention the lack of money back; often the words “tax” or “incentives” are nowhere to be found.

Take Missouri. It’s been a part of the film industry since the silent era. It’s where Kansas City native Robert Altman filmed his debut feature, 1957’s The Delinquents (and, almost four decades later, Kansas City). St. Louis stood in for a Manhattan that’d been turned into a hellish prison state in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. It’s where Debra Granik filmed the gritty Ozarks-set Winter’s Bone, where Adam Wingard shot the backwoods horror You’re Next. It’s home to film festivals, most notably the esteemed True/False Film Fest.

Missouri, though, currently has no statewide tax incentive program, and you can identify when big productions dried up—namely around 2013. The same goes for Vermont, home to Way Down East, Beetlejuice, Funny Farm, What Lies Beneath and (briefly) the 2009 Star Trek reboot. The same goes for West Virginia, setting of J.J. Abrams’s Super 8. Ditto Iowa, the land of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar and, speaking of baseball, the iconic diamond from Field of Dreams. The wide open spaces of North and South Dakota—which have done justice to Fargo, Starship Troopers and the already mentioned The Rider—are incentive-free.

That doesn’t mean buyer beware. It means productions have to think outside the box. Tax incentives need not be the final word on a location shoot. At day’s end, no price matters when a location can be found nowhere else on the planet, one that will help a project stick out from the enormous pack. As seen in the localized incentives in parts of Nebraska or the hotel discounts in Indiana, each state boasts its quirks, its ways to save money. It just requires going out into the world and being surprised by what can be found.

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