Arizona is becoming an ideal film and TV location


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Film and TV production in Arizona is experiencing a rebirth, made possible by the state's aggressive 30% income tax credit for productions with qualifying costs of more than $1 million. Instituted in 2006 and updated to the benefit of filmmakers in January, the credit, along with a transaction privilege tax exemption and a use tax exemption, has already caused an escalation in production that looks set to continue apace.

Production in and around Phoenix, for example, has increased greatly, says the program manager for the city's film office, Phil Bradstock, who notes that 2007's actioner "The Kingdom" and Universal's upcoming comedy "Kids in America" both shot extensively in Phoenix.

"We are still tallying the number of productions that have come to Arizona in the past year. However, it is evident through the increase of activity at film offices around the state that more filmmakers are finding it is worth their while to bring their productions here," says Harry Tate, director of the state's film office.

But the movie business is hardly new to the state. Arizona has hosted shoots for everything from 1940's "The Grapes of Wrath" and 1983's "Return of the Jedi" to 2005's "Transamerica," 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine," and 2007's "Into the Wild" and "The Savages."

"Arizona has a long history -- almost 100 years -- of being in and around the filmmaking industry, not only because of our wonderful weather and the topography, (but because of the multitude of) looks we have across the state," Tate says. "We can replicate any other state in the U.S. in some portion of Arizona."

The state has doubled for both far-flung locales (in "The Kingdom," it served as the Middle East) and less exotic places such as the San Fernando Valley, the Hollywood Hills, Anaheim and even Indiana. "We had the Indiana Farm Bureau out here filming one of their pieces because it was wintertime in Indiana ... but we still have green grass in the winter," Bradstock says.

Filmmakers have also found the state provides a surfeit of skilled crew. Director John Herzfeld, who had never been to Arizona before and wasn't sure what to expect, is shooting Spike TV's "SIS," a Sony Pictures Television production, in Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale. He now raves about the local crew base. "We have an extremely professional group of very talented people on the crew," he says. "I didn't know coming in what we'd find. Quite a bit of our crew is local, and I think everybody is very happily surprised."

The talent pool doesn't disappoint, either. "Producers and directors coming to Arizona from L.A. or New York are amazed to find that we are able to give them a quality day-player cast for their film or television project," says Faith Hibbs-Clark, owner and head casting director of Phoenix-based Good Faith Casting, which is working on "SIS."

Tate concurs: "Filmmakers have come in and commented on the fact that they didn't realize (the talent pool) is as extensive as it is."

The pool is not only extensive, but also diverse. "We're able to give them an ethnically diverse cast," Hibbs-Clark says. "People are shocked. They're like, 'Oh really?' Yes!"

Arizona's burgeoning film and TV production mirrors its population boom. Drawn by the sunny weather and relatively reasonable cost of living, people from all over the country, particularly Los Angeles (and especially industryites), have been putting down roots in the state, a situation that dovetails neatly with Arizona's infrastructure project tax credit, which is spurring the development of needed facilities like soundstages.

"It's a great opportunity for people to come here and start establishing those necessary production elements because the infrastructure is just being built," says Chris LaMont, co-founder and executive director of the Phoenix Film Festival and producer of the upcoming vampire office comedy "Netherbeast Incorporated," which shot in Phoenix. "We've got the basics in place, and we're adding to it every day."

Producer Mark Sennet, who is on a mission to bring production back to the U.S. from Canada and other parts of the world, is at the center of that process. The CEO of Old Tucson Prods., part of historic Old Tucson Studios, where several John Wayne films were shot, Sennet has already worked with legislators on Connecticut's tax credit program and is now spearheading an effort to draw production to Arizona. Old Tucson Studios suffered a fire in 1995, and while movies are still made there, it's now more of a tourist attraction than a working studio. So for now Sennet and his partners are using the Tucson Convention Center; productions must go through them to use the center's 12,000 square feet of soundstages with "all the facilities you would ever want."

Central to Sennet's strategy -- and to the bigger picture of why the state's incentive program has been so successful so quickly -- is Arizona's proximity to Los Angeles.

"Key to why this works, why out of all the states that are online with the tax credits, why this will work eventually and be better than New Mexico is because we're an hour from L.A.," Sennet says. "When I was doing (the 2006 made-for-TV movie) 'Desperation,' I would have all my actors go home and sleep in their own beds on the weekend."

He's not the only one who sees it that way; the tax credits are crucial, of course, but so is convenience.

"It takes less time to fly from L.A. to Phoenix than it does to drive from Calabasas to Century City," Bradstock says.

It makes sense that Arizonans touting the state's convenience factor speak in terms of traffic: That's a language Angelenos understand.