Incentive war flares at AFCI

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Once again, film incentives dominated talk at the 23rd annual AFCI Locations Trade Show, held at the Santa Monica Auditorium, with several commissions, notably New York and Illinois, announcing new or renewed packages.

"I can't recall a year where everything started with incentives," said Richard Moskel of the Chicago Film Office.

But some film commissioners are beginning to grumble at how long this one-upmanship can last.

"It's a race to the bottom, we know," said one commission director who declined to be named. In fact, "race to the bottom" was a term used several times from North American commissions as they wondered how high rebates and credits offered from state or regional governments will reach in an effort to attract the dollars generated by the film and television industry.

Canadian province Manitoba earlier this week unveiled a package that offered a combination of incentives that included a "Starbucks card" approach (shooting three films within a two-year period) and a rural bonus, with a possibility of receiving up to a whopping 65%.

"It's upping the ante to what? We're in danger of creating a false economy," said Kayla Thames-Berge of the Oregon Film Office. "But clearly, well-structured incentives do work."

New York caused waves during the three day trade show when the state legislature passed a package that raised its incentives from 10% to 30%. The announcement was so last-minute that commissions were left scrambling to put stickers reading "Now 30% for New York State" on everything they could.

Tim Clark of the Buffalo Film Office said he was relieved when he heard the news; he had seen the John Cusack starrer and Buffalo-set "The Factory" move to a shoot in Montreal because of the economics.

"It's a war of incentives," he said.

New York's glee was glum news to its competition, neighboring states and provinces, many of who put on brave faces.

"You need and want a comfort level, and that is what Toronto's industry continues to provide," said Donna Zuchlinski of the Ontario Media Development Corp.

Ontario and Toronto, in fact, concentrated on what is being billed as the next evolutionary step in its film industry: the super studio.

FilmPort, set on 50 acres next to downtown Toronto, is prepping for a ribbon-cutting ceremony later this spring. The site will have the largest state-of-the-art soundstage in North America — you could fit the Parthenon in it — and hopes to be a mecca of media convergence.

"It's a repositioning of the Toronto film industry," explained FilmPort president Ken Ferguson. "In the past, we could rely on the 65 cent exchange rate, we could do inexpensive productions and those $10 million productions very efficiently. That market's been taken over by places like Louisiana and other states. In the meantime, what we have is as enormous capacity of actors, crews, postproduction houses and so forth. So we are gearing up doing much larger feature films: the $100 million, effects-driven movie. That is where our market is going to be."

Canada last year successfully brought the approach of a unified pavilion to the AFCI, and this year saw more cohesion and bigger booths in general. The U.K. Film Council won an award for "super pavilion," where the council's Alison Small said, "Everybody here is U.K. first, then their region second."

The social aspect of the trade show continued to grow, with more commissions hosting receptions than ever before. Some, like the Royal Film Commission of Jordan, will be held this week.

Iceland's shindig, held at the home of its consul in Beverly Hills, was so successful that the party went on for hours after its official end time. The commission found that the best way to promote its country is having those that have shot there act as its marketers.

"I'm from Iceland and can be biased," said the country's film commissioner, Einar Tomasson. "The best is an American telling another American how good Iceland is."
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