Lights, Camera, Pineapple

With or without the right incentives, Relativity Media's Ryan Kavanaugh plans to spend $400 million on two new studios in Hawaii, where Hollywood dreams big.

If Ryan Kavanaugh gets his way -- and he almost always does -- construction crews financed by his Relativity Media and Steve Bing's Shangri-La Entertainment will break ground by year's end on a $200 million studio on Maui, his "favorite place in the world."

"We hope to start building stages this year," the Relativity CEO tells THR. "Maui should be ready for primetime within a few years." He plans to proceed whether or not Hawaii's state legislature approves bulked-up film incentives (to 35 or 40 percent from 15 to 20 percent), which could help divert productions from Puerto Rico (sometimes filmed as Hawaii), New Mexico and other high-incentive spots. In 2011, a wave of star power -- Bradley Cooper, Adrien Brody, Cuba Gooding Jr. -- helped Kavanaugh lobby for the incentives. Even Bill Clinton wrote a letter of support. All to no avail. In April, though, during Hawaii's most recent legislative session, Relativity was back at the table without the big guns.

Says Kavanaugh: "We recognized we need to work with those who stand to gain the most from a film program: the tax-paying locals of Hawaii. Specifically, we worked -- and continue to work -- with virtually every major union; they represent the interests of the people." The bill, still in committee, can be revived at any time. Meanwhile, Relativity is in talks about the studio with Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa.

The only major soundstage in use on the islands is Oahu's state-owned Hawaii Film Studio. Productions looking to shoot indoors elsewhere usually retro­fit old warehouses. "Most people don't go to Hawaii to shoot inside," says veteran location manager Mike Fantasia. "Shooting Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull " -- for which Hawaii filled in for Peru -- "we had a terrible time finding a sound studio. We built a covered set, but it rains every day. All that noise on a metal roof -- you're screwed."

Creative minds behind Hawaii productions tend to think big. For ABC's Lost, a wrecked jumbo jet was parked on a public beach. Such heroic efforts made the show -- and provided a tourism boost. "Lost is my biggest draw," says Kos Tours' Ed Kos, who runs Hummer tours of Oahu film locations. "The show's been over for two years, but people are still coming."

Kauai, often used for generic paradise scenes, got a star turn in The Descendants and a boost in tourists looking for the tiki bar where George Clooney drank. Even a box-office disappointment like Battleship earns dollars from those wanting to see Battleship Missouri, which had a part in the film. And CBS' Hawaii Five-0, while not the huge draw of the 1970s series, has young fans.

"People thought a cop show set in Hawaii was going to kill tourism," says Hawaii Film Office manager Donne Dawson, "but Five-O put us on the map. The new show is doing it all over again."

Even so, Five-0 and ABC's Last Resort are the only shows in production in Hawaii. After a record $384 million in direct production expenditures in 2010, spending dropped to $184 million in 2011. Relativity figures that the Maui studio, a $200 million facility planned for Oahu and better film incentives could lead to 24 films, four network shows and 45 cable shows a year -- with annual production spending of $1.6 billion.

"Incentives are funny," muses Fantasia. "Aside from an occasional Western, who wants to go to New Mexico to do a movie? But studios will go wherever they get the best bang for the buck."

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MAUI FILM FESTIVAL

The Maui Film Festival is a highly curated affair, screening the best of the best from Cannes, Toronto, Sundance and more. "Our films could play any of the world's great festivals," says fest director Barry Rivers. This leaves little room for local submissions (though there's excitement over the homegrown Until the Sun Sets, about warrior conflict in precolonial Hawaii). "Some filmmakers here aren't talking to me right now," admits Rivers. "We're not being spiteful; we're just raising the bar." Highlights for 2012: Liberal Arts, from actor-director and How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor (who receives the fest's inaugural Triple Threat Award), opens Maui with post-Sundance buzz. Alex Kurtzman's People Like Us screens the same night the film's star, Elizabeth Banks, picks up the fest's Navigator Award. Samsara marks a return to the stunning visual storytelling of Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson's Koyaanisqatsi-like Baraka. Kumare, Vikram Gandhi's doc about becoming a false-prophet yoga instructor, won South by Southwest's audience award and was called Borat's rightful heir. Immersion, Australian filmmaker Tim Bonython's homage to big-wave riders, already has locals enthralled. "People say it has the best trailer ever made," says Rivers. "They may be right, but the trailer doesn't do the film justice. It's that strong." -- M.F.

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