Hawaii's Local-Production Luau Continues

In its fourth season, CBS’ "Hawaii Five-0" filmed on one of Hawaii’s many beaches.
In its fourth season, CBS’ "Hawaii Five-0" filmed on one of Hawaii’s many beaches.
 CBS

This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Exactly one century ago, Hollywood silent-film director John Griffith Wray took his production crew to the remote American colony of Hawaii to film two shorts, the first ones ever made on the islands: The Shark God and Hawaiian Love.

"It's fascinating to think that when those first productions came here, this was still a monarchy," says Hawaii state film commissioner Donne Dawson. "Our queen was still alive. We've come a long way."

To mark the centennial of local film production, Hawaii is celebrating. There's a film retrospective of island-filmed titles in October at the Hawaii International Film Festival and an exhibit on fashion in cinema at the Modern Hotel, held in conjunction with Hawaii Fashion Month. But even as they toast the state's past, officials are looking for additional ways to lure more filmmakers from the mainland.

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Spurred on by a dip in production spending -- from $245 million in 2012 to an estimated $202 million in 2013 -- the Hawaii state legislature recently approved a 5 percent across-the-board increase to the state's existing tax credit, effective July 1. Qualifying film and TV projects now will receive a 20 percent rebate for shoots on Oahu and 25 percent on the neighboring islands. The law also extended the credit's sunset date from 2015 to 2019, raised the per-project incentive cap from $8 million to $15 million and made the boosts retroactive to Jan. 1.

Dawson says the new incentives have led to a surge of inquiries from Hollywood producers. "We have seen a definite increase in interest since the incentives passed," she says.

Socrates Buenger, owner and CEO of the new 21,000-square-foot Maui Film Studios, the only soundstage in Maui located in the Kahului industrial region, says that landing new productions is an ongoing process.

"We need to let people know we exist here and that we have a really good tax incentive," he says.

When Hollywood thinks of Hawaii, it's the state's beaches and jungle vistas that immediately come to mind. But Dawson says producers would be remiss to discount the state's urban amenities.

"People know us for the diversity of our landscapes," she says, "but our architecture is quite diverse, too. It's easy to shoot period pieces that take place on our islands because the buildings of those eras all still exist."

Hollywood slowly is starting to figure that out.

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The iconic Aliiolani Hale, a former governmental palace that now serves as the home of Hawaii's Supreme Court, stands in as the fictitious headquarters for CBS' Hawaii Five-0 team. It also played an important role in Tim Burton's upcoming Weinstein Co. feature Big Eyes. The biopic, starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz as feuding married artists Margaret and Walter Keane, wrapped shooting on Oahu in late September. And Legendary/Warner Bros.' Godzilla, starring Bryan Cranston, also recently completed a visit to Honolulu.

Director Cameron Crowe's still-untitled Hawaii feature, meanwhile, just started shooting on Oahu and will take advantage of the island's numerous military facilities. Will Burton's and Crowe's projects give local production the boost Wray's did a century ago?

"We are excited to be celebrating 100 years of film production," says Georja Skinner, chief officer of Hawaii's Creative Industries Division. "We really feel we have a great tax-incentive program that will take us another 100 years."

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