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Hooray for Hollywood, Wis.?

Some state legislators want to green-light film industry incentives early. Others say there are more pressing issues.

March 30, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

MADISON, WIS. — When a Hollywood production team began scouting locations for a film about poker star Phil Hellmuth, one of the first stops they made was to the land of Cheeseheads.

Hellmuth, a 10-time world poker champion known equally for his success at the card tables as for his mouthy arrogance, is a Madison native. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison for three years and then dropped out to play poker full time.

But where to film the story of Hellmuth's youth and rise to success has sparked a fight among state legislators.

At the root of the debate is a measure passed last spring that, starting Jan. 1, 2008, gives filmmakers a tax credit and other incentives for setting up shop here.

The problem is that Los Angeles-based Beacon Pictures reportedly plans to start rolling film on the $10-million movie by this summer.

The thought of another city benefiting from this story of Wisconsin's best-known gambler infuriates a bipartisan group of legislators. The group, led by Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, is pushing for the tax break to take effect immediately.

"Why wouldn't we open the door now?" Lawton asked. "Why wait six months, especially if we're going to lose this film that's about one of our own?"

However, the state's influential joint finance committee must approve the change before it can be voted on by the Senate and Assembly, and that may prove difficult. Critics, led by committee Co-Chairman Sen. Russell Decker, dismiss the push forward as a waste of time -- particularly because the state is trying to balance a two-year budget that has a $1.6-billion deficit.

"Why the rush?" Decker asked. "We have a budget to repair, low-income child care to provide for, law enforcement efforts to fund. We don't know whether film will bring in many new jobs or if we're chasing after something that may not pan out.

"One film is not going to make or break this state."

In the 1990s, Hollywood began aggressively seeking cheaper locales in an effort to stretch film budgets.

Some foreign governments jumped at the chance to take a bite of the multibillion-dollar film and video industry, and responded by offering a smorgasbord of tax incentives and other grants to lure production crews.

Studios in the United States discovered that by shifting production offshore, they could save 30% or more on the making of feature films, TV movies, television series and advertisements.

Now more than three dozen states have laws that offer tax breaks and other financial lures to filmmakers. Florida, South Carolina and New York have increased their incentives in recent years.

Connecticut has one of the most generous deals, letting filmmakers who spend at least $50,000 in the state trim their tax bills by 30%.

Louisiana, which gives a 25% tax break on a production's local payroll and all expenditures in the state, has been heralded as one of the most successful efforts.

"In 2005, we had about $530 million in production, and the state payroll hovered around $40 million. In 2006, we were somewhere around half a billion in production, which means we're staying at a nice, steady rate," said Alex Schott, executive director of the state Department of Economic Development's film and TV office. "At some point, you reach a critical mass, where you plateau and start having to build out the infrastructure and training to build for the future.

"But to enjoy any of this, you first have to get the projects to your state."

Indeed, Wisconsin hasn't put much emphasis on attracting Hollywood in recent years. In 2005, the state cut altogether the budget for its film office, which had been tapped to recruit projects. The office closed its doors last year.

Stepping into the gap, a group of local producers and financial investors formed Film Wisconsin. They, along with officials with the state arts board, began petitioning legislators last year to introduce a tax incentive.

In addition to the tax break, Wisconsin is trying to bolster its budding industry in other ways.

Across the state, trade schools are rolling out programs to train programmers and digital artists to work in the post-production industry. Young stagehands and actors talk expectantly about a future in which soundstages replace dairy farms and cattle-grazing fields.

And in St. Francis, a Milwaukee suburb, a team of investors is in the process of converting an old factory into a production facility with sound stages, editing studios and facilities for filming computer-generated scenes.

"We in Wisconsin are looking for new industries to help bolster the economy, because many of our mainstays are slumping," said Scott Robbe, a founding member of Film Wisconsin. "We've been a leader in the paper industry, and that's going away. The auto industry? That's dying. Manufacturing? It's going overseas."

"Film isn't going to be the fix-all answer to the economy," he said. "But jobs are jobs, and we need them."

And as the Wisconsin debate drags on, work continues on the Hellmuth project: Beacon Pictures is reportedly casting an eye on Canada for locations.

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