September 27, 2008

Arizona’s Movie Momentum Going Strong, at Least for Now

By David Miller

While it certainly feels like the Middle East in Mesa during the summer, it was the look of the East Valley that attracted the major Hollywood production "The Kingdom" in 2006.

In that intense action vehicle, stars Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner crouched for cover as deafening explosions rocked what appeared to be a Saudi Arabian expressway. Only they were actually blowing up our own windswept freeway.

And while hosting that movie hasn't morphed Arizona into Hollywood-east, the landscape of the Grand Canyon State increasingly has filmmakers eyeing the unique mix of varying scenery and cheap operating costs.

If only state leaders would embrace the idea of building incentives for other productions, the state could actually be a Southwestern Mecca for the movie and TV business, local film officials say.

Chris LaMont, executive director of the Phoenix Film Festival, says the Valley is poised to break out in the entertainment world, if certain legislative and promotional elements fall into place.

"Hollywood is increasingly taking note of the film industry here," he says. "These days, they can make films in Arizona of the same quality as in Hollywood."

Not only that, but by utilizing Arizona's diverse geography, filmmakers can mimic the look of nearly every part of America, as well as international settings such as the Middle East.

"You can get any climate you're looking for, and the weather is so accommodating," says LaMont, who also teaches at Arizona State University's School of Theatre and Film.

"You've got all different looks, from downtown buildings to small towns and suburbs, as well as the desert and mountains. And it's all an hour by air from Hollywood."

By contrast, he notes, an otherwise popular destination such as Seattle has trouble attracting film business because of its inclement weather. "No other state can do what we do," LaMont says.

"Film and television producers can go from one location to the next within a few hours," says Pati Urias, director of communications with the Arizona Department of Commerce (ADOC). "They can go from craggy mountains to sand dunes to high desert -- vastly different terrains which lend themselves to keeping production within budget."

Riding off into the 'sunset'

With all that, it would seem inevitable that Arizona would grow its movie industry. But while investors are poised to pump money into the film scene, they aren't quite ready to crack their wallets.

Before that happens, Arizona needs to extend its film incentive program, set to expire in 2010 under a "sunset provision."

Like many other states, Arizona offers incentives to lure filmmakers, but unless the provision continues, producers are likely to head to other states with better packages, LaMont says.

The Motion Picture Tax Incentive Program (MOPIC) gives production companies an exemption from the transaction privilege tax (TPT), along with other exemptions and income tax credits.

"The incentive programs are a part of what Arizona offers to attract film and television productions," says Urias. "This implies more jobs for Arizona professionals in the industry and more revenues spent in Arizona."

"Most of the calls I receive are from producers who say they're also looking at New Mexico," says Phil Bradstock, program manager with the city of Phoenix Film Office. New Mexico offers incentives to moviemakers, and has a sound stage infrastructure not present in Arizona.

"It all comes down to a financial decision," he says. "I think we have a healthy industry now. We are not yet at the level of places like New Mexico, but we've come far in a few years."

"The film, television and photographic industries in Arizona are very important to the economy," says Urias. "They bring in dollars from other states and countries to be spent here on film, television and photographic production services. This means jobs and wages for Arizona's industry professionals."

Mike Kucharo, with the Arizona Film and Media Coalition, says the loss of the incentive program would prove "devastating" to the state's film business.

"We're finally at a point where we can make real progress, and now we could possibly see it slip away," he says.

Films here; Will they stay?

Ironically, Arizona was one of the first states to boast such a plan. Now, Kucharo says, a number of other states are on the bandwagon, and will benefit instead if Arizona loses its Hollywood lure.

Already over the past several years, a number of filmmakers have taken advantage of Arizona's incentives and stunning vistas.

Director Sean Penn's much-lauded film "Into The Wild," for instance, featured scenes shot in Page, Yuma, Bullhead City and Kingman. And "Transamerica," starring Felicity Huffman from TV's "Desperate Housewives," extolled the adventures of a transvestite traveling across country with her son. Much of that road trip was shot in Arizona.

Over the last year, other films have been shot here, with some slated for TV and others hitting film festivals and theaters across the country.

"Netherbeast, Inc.," a twist on vampire lore set in corporate America, is showing now in limited release nationwide, and is set to open in Phoenix next month, according to the ADOC.

The film stars Robert Wagner -- Dr. Evil's faithful Number Two in the "Austin Powers" series -- along with Darrell Hammond of "Saturday Night Live" and Judd Nelson of "Breakfast Club" fame. The film was directed by an Arizonan, Dean Matthew Ronalds.

Also currently in release is "Jake's Corner," a family-friendly independent film about a former football star who moves out of the spotlight to a sleepy, backwoods burg known as Jake's Corner (the film was shot in Gila County). The town, sounding like a Southwestern transplant out of "Northern Exposure," features a cast of quirky characters and stars Richard Tyson ("Black Hawk Down"), Diane Ladd and Danny Trejo. The movie was produced by Jeff Santo, son of Chicago Cubs baseball player Ron Santo, and former Phoenix Suns' star Dan Majerle, among others.

Another film, "S.I.S.," centers on an elite police investigative team, and was shot mostly in central Phoenix. The movie premiered early in September on Spike TV.

A larger project that recently wrapped in Phoenix and Tucson is "Farlanders," directed by Sam Mendes, who won an Oscar several years ago for "American Beauty." The cast includes John Krasinski from TV's "The Office," Jeff Daniels, Allison Janey ("The West Wing"), Maya Rudolph of "Saturday Night Live" and Toni Collette ("Little Miss Sunshine").

Of course, Arizona imagery has long been a staple of television and motion pictures.

"Psycho" -- both the original and the shot-for-shot remake -- featured local scenery. The iconic "Billy Jack," which remarked on the modern plight of Native Americans (with Tom Laughlin beating sense into the unenlightened), was shot partly in Prescott. And, of course, "Raising Arizona" made the entire state out to be unenlightened.

"It's great to see filmmakers finding value in casting and shooting productions in Arizona," stated Jan Lesher, formerly director of ADOC and now Gov. Janet Napolitano's chief of staff in a release about recent film productions. "We are proud of the fact that our state is visually unique and able to stand in as any one of the 50 states."

Still, in order to maintain this momentum, Arizona will need to continue to compete with other states wooing producers and directors.

"A lot of people are waiting to see if the legislation is extended beyond 2010," says Bradstock. "If the sunset provision is lifted, you're going to see sound stages going up."

Originally published by David Miller.

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