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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Another suitor for filmmakers

September 30, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Tova LAITER has fallen in love with the backers of her new comedy, "Elvis Has Left the Building," which stars Kim Basinger as a Pink Lady beauty consultant who accidentally kills several Elvis impersonators and ends up on the run from the FBI.

"I've never dealt with people so polite and professional," says Laiter, a producer who began shooting the film Sept. 15 with director Joel ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") Zwick. "When we came to scout locations, they arranged for free hotels, restaurants and transportation. When we needed to shoot at the local convention center, we got to use it for five days -- gratis."

The object of Laiter's affection isn't a scrum of German tax fund accountants or a Silicon Valley zillionaire. It's the state of New Mexico.

A growing number of states offer tax credits as a way to lure Hollywood dollars. But New Mexico actually is investing in movies -- the state has established a fund of $85 million for the purpose. The money comes in the form of no-interest loans, repayable in two to five years. The state will invest as much as $7.5 million in any movie that passes muster with the New Mexico State Investment Council, as long as filmmakers agree to spend most of their shooting schedule in state and hire a crew made up of at least 60% New Mexico residents.

On top of that, New Mexico offers any film, whether financed by the state or not, a 15% tax rebate for every dollar spent locally. It also has a mentor program that offers an eye-popping 50% salary rebate for advancing the skills of crew members who are either hired for the first time or promoted to higher positions. The law also allows filmmakers to get their tax credits immediately, allowing the money to go directly into the film's production budget.

"I'm not sure we've stolen any film production away from Canada yet, but we're going to try. This is a way for us to compete with them for film dollars," says Greg Kulka, the alternative investments portfolio manager for the state's investment council. For a low-budget film such as "Elvis Has Left the Building," which was put together by London-based Capitol Films, producers of the upcoming "Sylvia," starring Gwyneth Paltrow, the state's investment represents a lion's share of the movie's $11.5-million budget. But more importantly, by giving the state a big rooting interest in the film's success, it smooths over the bureaucratic hurdles that often beset filmmakers in less welcoming environs -- hint, hint -- such as Los Angeles.

"It makes your life easier because the state and the film commission are your partners," says Laiter. "Everything you ask for is doable. When we had our session to qualify for the loan, the governor said, 'If you have any problems, just call me.' That's a pretty nice situation, where you think to yourself, 'Well, we've had so few problems I haven't had to call the governor yet.' "

From pocket to production

When the western "The Missing" filmed in New Mexico this spring, Gov. Bill Richardson invited director Ron Howard, line producer Todd Hallowell and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman to dinner at the governor's mansion. "Getting a 15% tax credit on every dollar you spend in the state is a very real savings," says Hallowell. "We ended up getting millions of dollars in credits that we could put up on the screen."

It's hard not to contrast New Mexico's bold outreach program with the baby steps taken in California. The state has been staggered by a vast exodus of filmmaking dollars to Canada, which offers mountains, prairies, big cities and a lopsided exchange rate that has prompted an onslaught of runaway film production.

Unlike New Mexico's Legislature, which unanimously voted for its no-interest loan scheme, California's Assembly balked last fall at passing even the most meager of tax incentives. Things are so bad that when Gov. Gray Davis' office sent a news release last week boasting about new legislative initiatives that would protect the state's entertainment industry, all the governor could say about combating runaway film production was that the Legislature hadn't managed to kill the California Film Commission.

The news release neglected to mention what matters most to filmmakers: the Legislature's gutting of the state's much-ballyhooed Film California First program. Launched several years ago with a $15-million war chest aimed at reimbursing film companies for shooting on state property, the program got zero funding this year.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the gubernatorial candidate with the most personal stake in this issue, was widely quoted last week saying that one of the first things he wants to do when he becomes governor "is bring the movie business back to California." It's a nice sound bite, but the candidate's track record makes it look like a dubious promise. As a $30-million movie star, Arnold has plenty of say in where his films shoot. But of the last three movies he's made, "The 6th Day" was shot in Canada and "Collateral Damage" was filmed primarily in Mexico.

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