Hollywood producers snubbing Seattle; here’s why
Although their movies and TV series may be set in Seattle, producers often choose other locations to take advantage of more generous tax credits.
Special to The Seattle Times
10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23, on BBC America.
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On Aug. 23 BBC America debuts “Intruders,” a mysterious drama about a secret society seeking immortality that’s set largely in and around Seattle.
But like plenty of recent series before it — Hallmark Channel’s “Cedar Cove,” Netflix’s “The Killing” — “Intruders” was not filmed in Seattle, with the exception of a few establishing shots. The eight-episode first season of the series was produced in Vancouver, B.C.
“Intruders” executive producer Jane Tranter said the decision to film in Vancouver was primarily financial, echoing the perspective of about a dozen recently interviewed Hollywood producers and executives.
The deciding factor? “Tax credit essentially,” Tranter said. “We felt Vancouver is a natural, organically, exact eco-match for Seattle. It has an exceptionally well-organized film community there and it was quite a natural decision to go there. It just would have been harder to film in Seattle itself and there was ultimately no need.”
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when “Twin Peaks” and “Northern Exposure” did some filming locally, film tax-credit programs had not yet been developed. At that point, productions usually stayed near the production centers of Los Angeles and New York because of a wealth of experienced crews to work behind the scenes. If a prime-time TV program did venture beyond a production center, it was usually because the program’s content dictated a specific location look.
Kevin Berg, executive vice president of production for the CBS Network Television Entertainment Group, said Canada began an incentive program in 1997 and Louisiana passed the first U.S. film tax-credit program and expanded it in 2002.
“The reality is the tax credit has become very important,” Berg explained. “Our goal is always put the highest production quality on the screen. The tax credit helps us afford a level of production we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”
Washington lags behind other states in this department. Film Production Capital, a New Orleans-based tax-credit brokerage company, rates U.S. film tax-credit programs by state on its website. Washington gets two stars (out of five) for its program, which offers a 15 to 35 percent rebate on expenditures paid to Washington residents and businesses for a minimum spend ($500,000 on movies, $300,000 on TV shows per episode, $150,000 on commercials) and a 15 percent rebate on nonresident labor if 85 percent of a production’s labor force is made up of Washington residents.
But Washington caps its program at $3.5 million annually. A film office director from another state said that relatively low cap is reasons 1-100 why so little major production work comes to Washington.
Oregon’s film tax-credit program was recently raised from a $6 million to $10 million cap and there are currently three series regularly in production in Portland: NBC’s “Grimm,” IFC’s “Portlandia” and TNT’s upcoming “The Librarians.”
New Mexico’s cap is $50 million. Pennsylvania tops out at $60 million annually. Some states, including Georgia and Louisiana, have no cap, which likely accounts for why both of these Southern states have grown into mini-production centers.
Amy Lillard, executive director of Washington’s film office, Washington Filmworks, said the reality of this state’s low cap necessitates that the program targets indie features, often with budgets under $5 million, and TV commercials. She doesn’t consider Vancouver, which Washington Filmworks estimates offers $250 million in annual incentives, the competition.
“They’re doing giant studio films, ‘X-Men 19,’ ” she said. “Because of the size of the [Washington] incentive, we know our target market. We’ve launched a business development campaign, Commercialize Seattle, which is a partnership with the city to bring more commercial work. We know what we can afford through the incentive program and what works best for us.”
Of course, Lillard would like a bigger budget to work with to draw bigger projects.
“Undoubtedly incentives play an important part in the decision-making process of picking locations for TV and feature films, and while we’ve had a tremendous amount of success securing work every year, additional dollars mean more economic impact and more jobs,” Lillard said. “If we had more money, we would have more work.”
When “The Killing,” which debuted in 2011, was in development at AMC, there were conversations about bringing that show to Seattle.
“We had a real go at it,” Lillard said.
But at that time, the Washington incentive program was due to sunset, which made it impossible to guarantee producers that the incentive would continue beyond 2012.
Washington’s program was ultimately renewed for five years in 2012 but will sunset again unless renewed by the state Legislature in 2017. The program can raise up to $3.5 million annually through the business and occupation tax, with businesses given the opportunity to put the amount they owe in taxes toward the production incentive program (up to $1 million per year) and receive a tax credit in the same amount.
Film tax-incentive programs are inherently political, and some states have moved to do away with them. (Conservative tax watchdogs generally favor doing away with film tax credits in favor of lower business taxes for all industries.)
But as long as some states offer film tax credits, those that do not or that offer paltry sums by comparison will lose work to states with more robust incentive programs.
Washington’s program helped draw the currently in-production film “Captain Fantastic,” starring Viggo Mortensen as a father trying to teach his kids to live in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. It’s shooting an hour outside of Seattle (the exact location is under wraps, but at least some scenes were filmed in Gold Bar).
Recent past productions in Seattle include Megan Griffiths’ “Lucky Them,” starring Toni Collette and Thomas Haden Church, and Lynn Shelton’s “Laggies,” which shot locally last summer and is due in theaters in September.
For most state film offices, landing a weekly TV series is the holy grail of production work because, in success, it can mean more steady work as productions return to film a new season each year.
Washington won its first TV series through its incentive program earlier this year with Syfy’s 13-episode zombie drama “Z Nation,” which began production in Spokane in May and will air this fall, starting Sept. 12. The series stars Harold Perrineau (“Lost”) and Tom Everett Scott (“Southland”) and is produced by The Asylum, the production company responsible for Syfy’s “Sharknado” franchise.
Lillard said landing “Z Nation” is a coup for Washington Filmworks.
“That’s five months of work for the crew and a ton of economic activity in Spokane,” she said.
In addition to movies and TV shows, streaming series (e.g. Netflix) could be considered for incentives in the future.
But producers need not apply for incentives for the rest of 2014: The $3.5 million was exhausted by May.
“This year we had unprecedented success,” Lillard said. “During that time frame we were considering five additional projects that would have brought an estimated $55 million of economic impact over the summer that we had to say no to.”
Big-budget productions will likely continue to bypass Seattle no matter how attractive the landscapes look, which “Intruders” executive producer Tranter said are a factor that’s considered in tandem with — but subordinate to — financial incentives.
“You have to think, what’s the most practical place to film, where are we going to get the maximum value for the money on screen, which includes the way it looks but also all the other benefits you can get, and Vancouver was just better,” she said, adding that “Intruders” producers did consider Seattle. “We just got more bang for our buck going to Vancouver because of the tax breaks.”
Freelance writer Rob Owen: RobOwenTV@gmail.com or on Facebook and Twitter as RobOwenTV.