It took years of hard work to get tax and other official state incentives for major film productions in Wisconsin, and just a quick flick of the pen to destroy them.
That's the simplified version of the story, anyway. But the fact remains that for a brief and shining moment, the Badger State boasted one of the most inviting tax environments in the country for movie makers.
Now, however, the nonprofit organization in charge of soliciting productions in the state, Film Wisconsin, is facing a serious enough budget shortfall that they've fired their executive director. According to The Business Journal of Milwaukee, "Scott Robbe, the filmmaker and producer who led the effort to draft a slate of film industry tax credits and incentives that helped attract film industry projects to the state, is out as the executive director," a decision made by the board as a way to stay afloat.
Film Wisconsin apparently only has somewhere between $30 and $40 thousand on hand to maintain operations. That's left board president David Fantle to perform most of the services and duties offered by the office, including taking calls from productions interested in doing work in the state. The volume of those calls, however, has dropped off a cliff since Gov. Doyle slashed the film incentive package last year.
The original package, which was signed into law by Doyle in 2006 and became effective in 2008, included "a credit of 25 percent of wages paid to company employees for services rendered in Wisconsin. In addition to film, these tax credits will be available to companies involved in the production of television, electronic games, and broadcast advertisement as approved by the Department of Commerce."
But by 2009, when the economy was in freefall and government was looking for any way possible to slash deficits, Doyle used his veto powers to cut funding for the project to a tax credit limit of just $500,000.
That was also partially in response to widespread criticism of the amount of credit given to the producers of Public Enemies, one of the first major motion pictures filmed in the state after the program went into effect. While the movie spent $5 million in Wisconsin, it was given back $4.6 million in credits. But as a recent article in the Milwaukee AV Club points out, that was still $400,000 we wouldn't have otherwise seen.
That same article also lays a lot of blame for the current snafu at the feet of Doyle. While I agree that simply neutering the incentive package wasn't a great move on his part, there's a lot more to this saga than at first meets the eye.
In an exchange over Twitter that eventually moved to email, I discussed the issue with Meg Hamel, currently the director of the Wisconsin Film Festival. She made several points that I hadn't entirely considered previously, but which made a lot of sense.
Hamel was sure to point out her support for Film Wisconsin and the effort to bring more film and video game work to the state in general, but also argued strongly in favor of creating a program that would do more to foster the skills and talent needed on all levels of filmmaking right here in our own backyard.
"It seems elementary that a successful statewide film industry would begin by developing local skilled crew and increasing space-and-equipment rentals that are specific to film," she noted. "Our excellent statewide university system is the natural place to begin creating the talent base for camera operators, grips, actors, editors, post-production specialists, and so forth. Milwaukee and Madison already have film production programs that could receive additional funding to upgrade equipment, hire faculty, and teach a generation of new filmmakers how to work professionally in the industry. With a solid base of experienced, skilled crew, it becomes much more plausible for a film production to be in the state, since they can hire local crew and not fly them in."
And that's the crux of the issue, in my opinion: In order to generate a sustainable industry (and, therefore, a good source of business income for the state) you have to invest in laying a solid foundation.
It would seem that the focus of the original Film Wisconsin legislation was far too narrow. Sure, it's easy to get psyched about Johnny Depp and Christian Bale coming to town to shoot a movie, but what about all those lower profile productions that do just as much, if not more (because they hire local), to bolster Wisconsin's economy? We need to throw our support behind a wider range of people and projects in order to create something that lasts.
(Full disclosure: I've been, and continue to be, involved in several low-to-no-budget movie projects so the issue is somewhat near and dear to my heart. But, aside from personal bias, this idea really does make sense.)
For his part, Fantle seems optimistic about the future of Film Wisconsin. In a brief email exchange, he assured me that "Film Wisconsin will regroup, enlist the support again of hundreds of creative people throughout the state and prepare to work with the new governor and legislature to again create a tax credit program that builds a homegrown film and television economy for the state and provides exciting employment opportunities for our residents. It was starting to take root in 2008 and like a film sequel, it will come back to see another day."
Let's hope so. And perhaps this time, when crafting the program, both voters and legislators will take a broader and longer view.
The anti-abortion videographers have been at it again, this time grabbing footage from several Planned Parenthood offices in our very own state. The California-based group Live Action claims to have taped incriminating exchanges between a girl posing as a pregnant 14-year-old and Planned Parenthood staff. It's more than worth noting that the videos are apparently so low quality that it's difficult to make out what's really happening-and also highly edited-but there's a more important issue at hand here. Groups like Live Action don't really care about the complaints they're making in regards to these videos. Their true motive is simply to shut down places like Planned Parenthood, and to ensure that women, young and old, do not have access to accurate information and safe health services. Let's not confuse the issue, eh?
Doyle's about-face is complete: The Legislature officially failed to override his veto of a measure that would have taken away his ability to appoint new DNR secretaries and instead give the job back to the Natural Resources Board. I don't see how this benefits a lame duck, so there must be something else to it.