Commentary: Alaska, at long last, to offer film incentives

Push brought about by group tired of seeing movies set in the state shot elsewhere

Alaska was one of the last states to join the United States of America, and after signing a bill last week it became one of the last to join the United States of Film Incentives.

The legislation was a year in the making -- a year to the day when members of the Alaska Film Group first met with the governor to discuss the issue.

The group was tired of seeing movies set in the state shoot elsewhere, including "The Guardian," the Kevin Costner Coast Guard movie set in Kodiak but shot in Louisiana; Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia," set in the state but shot in British Columbia; and "30 Days of Night," set in the town of Barrow but filmed in New Zealand.

It is impossible to know how much the state lost in revenue; it lost its film office in the late 1990s, and no one was keeping track of actual productions. Sean Penn's adaptation of "Into the Wild," which shot in early 2007, brought in $4 million, a record and an anomaly.

"No feature film was going to come to Alaska beyond second unit unless we had incentives," says the Alaska Film Group's Carolyn Robinson, who also is a producer.

The plight didn't go unnoticed by state Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis (D-Anchorage), who did notice a shoot for a Disney movie called "The Proposal": "Some Hollywood folks came here for a day or two and shot exterior. And Sandra Bullock went to Massachusetts. But we had no film office, we had no film incentive."

Also fueling the fire was a brain drain, with many creative and crew members, and those that wanted to work in the entertainment industry, leaving the state for sunnier climes down south.

That all changed last week when the governor signed a law re-establishing the Alaska Film Office and creating the Alaska Film Incentive Program.

The film office now has a yearly operating budget of $350 000 and a national search for someone to run it is under way.

The incentive, meanwhile, make a bold statement: 30% transferable tax credit to qualified productions on qualified expenditures, with an additional 10% for Alaska hire and a 2% bonus or winter and rural spending. The program has a sunset clause of five years or after issuanceof $100 million in credits.

That thinking shows that the state is confident it can entice over $300 million in production to its lush shores. Is Hollywood ready to spend $300 million is a land that can be all night for 24 hours? Or that it's cold? Or that is far far away?

"There are lot of misconceptions of Alaska," says Ellis.

Indeed, the AFG says the state is only five hours away from Los Angeles, three from Seattle. There is no sales tax in the state, so many products are equal in price to the continental country. Plus, they have real glaciers.

Ellis knows that one reason "Into the Wild" shot in the state was due to director Penn's insistence on authenticity. But he also knows he can't rely on a filmmaker's decision to bring a production to the state.

"We know that it's the accountants and money folks that often make those decisions rather than the creative people," he says. This bill is designed to get their attention.

Now, Ellis and other Alaskans have hope that maybe, just maybe, the Coen Brothers will head north if they get to their adaptation of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union," which is set in Sitka, Alaska.

"I have a feeling that Alaska is just going to burst into the film industry," says Robinson. "Right now it's in diapers. But I think it's going to grow up very, very fast."