For more photos, click gallery, above.
When legendary horror star Lon Chaney shot his last silent film, Thunder, near Green Bay during a harsh winter, Wisconsin gave him a gift.
We gave him pneumonia. He died soon after.
That film was about a train, with Chaney as the engineer. It was the state's first brush with big-league filmmaking.
Today, we've recently lost a different train. But maybe we can at least get Hollywood to return.
In June 2009, Gov. Jim Doyle dialed back Wisconsin's new film incentives after just a year and a half, to levels that critics call "incomprehensible."
However, our new governor, Scott Walker, seems to understand the intent of the original legislation: to help build a new economy in Wisconsin and present the state to the nation as beautiful, creative and can-do.
"Gov. Doyle did not give the program a fair chance to take hold," Walker stated in October. "Reasonable and sustainable incentives that give an emphasis in putting Wisconsin people to work and growing this industry for the state should receive serious consideration."
Restoring and fine-tuning the legislation won't happen overnight, but some think it could happen within the first 100 days of Walker's term.
That's if job creation remains a top priority for Walker, says Dave Fantle, board chair of Film Wisconsin, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit advocacy group.
"We're not looking at this as 'Let's beat our chests and do a massive PR campaign,' because we've proven over the last several years that the lawmakers, generally speaking, are amenable to this," he says. "And generally speaking, they've said that it hasn't had a fair chance to take hold, and they're willing to give it a chance."
Doyle signed the film incentive legislation May 30, 2006. "It created tax incentives to try to create a creative economy through film, television and the videogaming industry, and to grow that economy here in Wisconsin," says Fantle.
The state had closed its Department of Tourism film office on July 1, 2005. After that, state film professionals started meeting to discuss the future. Film Wisconsin was created from those discussions.
Financial incentives have long been important to moviemakers. That's why most of The X-Files was filmed in Canada, for example. As the Canadian dollar strengthened, work shifted to states with strong incentive packages, such as Illinois, Louisiana and Oklahoma, and also to Mexico. James Cameron's Titanic sank not in the Atlantic, but at Rosarito Beach, Mexico.
Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton made incentives a cause, as part of her work chairing the Wisconsin Arts Board. Arts Wisconsin, another nonprofit advocacy group, added its muscle.
The result was Wisconsin Senate Bill #563, introduced by Sen. Ted Kanavas, a Republican from District 33, which includes Waukesha. The Film Wisconsin incentive legislation received bipartisan support right down the line, and quickly. On March 30, 2006, it passed the Joint Committee on Finance, 15 to 1. It passed the Senate 27 to 6, on April 25.
On May 2 it passed the Assembly on a voice vote. "That's how bipartisan it was. And hopefully continues to be," says Fantle.
Incentives kicked in on Jan. 1, 2008: a 25% tax credit on certain salaries and wages, and a 15% production services credit for permanent infrastructure investment. It achieved what it set out to do.
"We saw tremendous growth in production here, and tremendous interest in Wisconsin, because the projects were successful," says Lawton, who stepped down Jan. 3. The film industry "saw that it was a great place with not only every landscape and setting you needed for a film, but cooperative communities."
Film Wisconsin estimates that 759 film-related jobs were created in 2008 in communities including Madison, Milwaukee, La Crosse, Green Bay, Wisconsin Rapids and Manitowish Waters.
Institutions including Milwaukee Area Technical College, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Whitewater all geared up for workforce development with enhanced film-production curricula.
In a single year, Wisconsin saw the creation of several videogames, three national commercials, state and regional commercials, 16 television programs and eight feature films.
One of the features was Johnny Depp's Public Enemies. The makers of the John Dillinger biopic came, filmed and spent.
Then, like Dillinger, they "blew out of town," according to The Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel's Patrick Marley and Stacy Forster. The duo wrote that "state taxpayers gave the movie company back almost every penny it had invested in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Commerce."
What followed from that Feb. 13, 2009, article became a war of accountants and an embarrassment to Doyle. Media quickly picked up the story and repeated the figures.
It was the classic tale of slick show people descending on poor rural folk and bilking them. W.C. Fields did the story on Broadway in 1923, as Poppy. As drama, it's so clichéd that The Simpsons reversed it 1995; their Springfield swindled Mickey Rooney and gouged a film crew, which then fled to the tender embrace and hometown sensibilities of Hollywood.
Others doubted Commerce's figures. The department said that the production spent around $5 million here, and in return received $4.6 million in incentives.
It depends on what you count as spending. Commerce didn't include a lot of things, such as $86,500 revenue from county and local taxes, $1.4 million in site fees, or a total of $610,000 in per diems for out-of-state cast and crew. In fact, the Department of Commerce even based its numbers on an estimate of employment days, rather than an actual figure.
Film Wisconsin puts the actual Public Enemies Wisconsin outlay closer to $7.7 million. But don't take their word for it. Final film budgets are notoriously secret and convoluted, but a third party, the Motion Picture Association of America, estimates that Public Enemies spent $17 million here.
"I remember that the tenor of any commentary that came out of the Department of Commerce was consistently undervaluing, and even using different accounting methods than we might for what the industry had brought into our state," recalls Lawton. "It was as if the numbers and reaction nationwide to Wisconsin's entering this realm were irrelevant, because they were going in a different direction."
Commerce argued that the tax rebates cost Wisconsin. Incentive supporters argued - and still argue - that you can't tax something you don't have in the first place.
Following the controversy, in 2009 Doyle limited the tax rebate budget to $500,000 total, "which does not make the state very competitive," says Fantle. "It does not do much to incubate an industry."
"The Joint Finance Committee voted unanimously to restore" the rebates, says Lawton. "We could account for not only tremendous value in the first year, but the promise of a great deal more. It seemed incomprehensible."
From Hollywood, Wisconsin natives such as actors Jane Kaczmarek, of Malcolm in the Middle, Bradley Whitford, of The West Wing, and Tony Shalhoub, of Monk, all argued for improving the incentive legislation, rather than scrapping it.
"Here's the thing, says Roland Rosenkranz, a native of Madison and art director for CSI Miami. "If it can be found that tax credits are not a negative drain on the state of Wisconsin, then it's a tough argument when you factor in the positive cash flow provided by film production."
Rosenkranz has wide experience. Besides Wisconsin theater, he previously worked on NYPD Blue and Babylon 5, among other television and film productions.
"When film production comes into any state, it's like a money train that spreads its wealth to all sorts of business: lumber yards, hotels, dry cleaners, antique stores, grocery stores, retail of all kinds, and that's only the production costs," he notes. "The other ancillary benefit is the influx of the crew members of these film companies themselves, spending personally as they visit any particular area of the state. By those standards, it might even be argued that it's a green economy."
He adds, "From my perspective here in Los Angeles, I'm in some ways quite happy with one less state providing tax incentives for filming." Hollywood continues to see production siphoned away by other states while California suffers crippling debt.
A new hope
In 2008, there were so many inquiries about producing here that Film Wisconsin had paid staff to answer the phones. Today it's all volunteer, and there's a long wait between calls. "The reality is that there's nothing in the pipeline, to my knowledge," says Fantle.
The third installment in the Transformers series visited Milwaukee this year: two days, 700 hotel room nights, $2 million spent. That was only to capture the city's unique art museum. Then the production moved to Chicago and stayed for two months; it and Illinois have robust film offices and strong incentives. Michigan is planning the most aggressive incentives yet.
Meanwhile, independent Wisconsin filmmakers gripe that their own budgets aren't large enough to qualify for what incentives remain. They also complain that big feature productions don't use state vendors. Fantle says that fixes can be made.
Gov. Walker's transition team did not respond to requests for comment before deadline, but in October he told VISIT Milwaukee, that city's convention and visitors bureau, "As governor I will encourage members of the Legislature to take a close look at the current program," and recommend "any revisions to the current law" that could "remove the $500,000 program limit and recommend an amount that would make Wisconsin competitive."
Anne Katz, executive director of Arts Wisconsin, is hopeful. She worked with Lawton to get the incentives passed in the first place.
"Nothing is at all definite or sure at this point, but the door has been opened a crack," she says.
One final note: The much-vilified Public Enemies was released by Universal Studios. Universal was founded by Carl Laemmle in 1914. He learned the film business as a bookkeeper, accountant and film distributor.
A German immigrant, he worked for many years in his adopted American hometown before heading west. He even found his wife there.
You may have heard of it.
It's called Oshkosh.