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Tuesday, 24 March 2009 14:13

The North Central Region

Written by  Monica Caffaratti
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Sunset at the Pierhead Lighthouse in Manistee, Mich. Photo courtesy of Michigan Film Office The North Central Region of the U.S. is packed with great perks for productions. Filmmakers can cash in on the unique resources of five states –– Michigan, South Dakota, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin –– and enjoy such benefits as Michigan’s ambitious 40- to 42-percent tax incentive and South Dakota’s spectacular landscape...

Sunset at the Pierhead Lighthouse in Manistee, Mich. Photo courtesy of Michigan Film Office The North Central Region of the U.S. is packed with great perks for productions. Filmmakers can cash in on the unique resources of five states –– Michigan, South Dakota, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin –– and enjoy such benefits as Michigan’s ambitious 40- to 42-percent tax incentive and South Dakota’s spectacular landscape.


Michigan’s film production credit is a refundable, assignable tax credit of up to 42 percent of the amount of the production’s expenditures, with a required in-state minimum spend of only $50,000. This highly attractive incentive has no caps except for a $2 million cap on salaries per person per production. Qualifying expenditures made in one of the 103 designated core communities are eligible for the 42-percent tax credit, while qualified expenditures made in non-core communities are eligible for a 40-percent tax credit. Other parts of the package include an infrastructure tax credit and a workforce development tax credit.

According to guidelines from the Michigan Film Office, compensation payment made to above-the-line talent from a production company is considered as “direct production expenditures” eligible for a 40- to 42-percent credit amount. Compensation payments made to below-the-line personnel may be either “qualified personnel expenditures” eligible for the 30-percent credit amount, or “direct production expenditures” eligible for a 40- to 42-percent credit amount. The 40-percent credit is granted to Michigan residents, while the 30-percent credit is granted to non-residents.

These tax incentives are the main reason why productions run away to Michigan, but the state’s locations offer a useful array of scenery. “Detroit has it all!” says Stephanie Milledge, director of the Detroit Film Office. “We have urban, downtown and upscale communities. We have our cultural attractions, sports arenas, a beautiful riverwalk and riverfront properties. We have the land, space and the available property — both vacant and occupied — to film projects easily. We also have a city full of talented and gifted people with growing businesses of every kind to support this new Michigan industry.”

Recent Michigan productions include Betty Anne Walters and She Kills, as well as several commercials and event coverage. Milledge also says that there are quite a few requests for warehouses, since the auto industry has declined use of their facilities.


Filmmakers who want to complete their project in South Dakota must pay tax on the first $250,000 in South Dakota taxable costs; everything after that is subject to the refunds on sales, use and excise taxes (this includes all taxable sales and services, with some exceptions). This tax incentive is available to nationally or regionally distributed motion picture, television and documentary projects, as well as film or single television advertising projects. Currently, a municipal sales tax ranging from 1 to 3 percent is in effect in more than 140 cities in South Dakota.

There are no corporate or personal income taxes in South Dakota, and lodging accommodations (if occupied for 28 consecutive days) are exempt from the state’s 4-percent state and city sales-tax rate and the 1-percent tourism tax.

South Dakota’s most unique sites –– Mount Rushmore and the Badlands –– have always been popular shooting locations. The South Dakota Film Office helps productions to secure filming at these locales, as well as on state, federal and tribal lands.

Waterfall in Black Hills, S.D. Photo by Sally Kemper“We’ve seen several different film projects come through our state due to the infinite variety of landscapes from east to west that we have to offer,” says Emily Currey, Film & Media Relations Representative for the South Dakota Film Office. “National Treasure: Book of Secrets was filmed in the Black Hills National Forest and in Custer State Park. The Black Hills are an important part of our history in South Dakota and are an important piece of land to everyone that lives here. We have many original backdrops that can’t be replicated.”

Currey also informs me about the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is a work in progress and will be the world's largest mountain carving when finished –– the memorial will be an impressive 641 feet long and 563 feet long.

The South Dakota Film Office was created due to the success of the Academy Award-winning film Dances with Wolves, which shot in South Dakota’s western prairie in 1989. Other films, such as Wyatt Earp, Starship Troopers and Into the Wild, have also come to experience South Dakota’s rugged terrain.

Into the Wild actually required filming in several states. The film’s executive producer, John Kelley, says Utah was supposed to double for South Dakota, but director Sean Penn insisted on shooting in South Dakota to make the film as authentic as possible. “We shot all over the state, it was very accessible,” Kelley recalls. “We used locals for drivers, extras and anyone who wanted to volunteer to help with the production.” Kelley also says that if he ever shoots again in South Dakota, he would use as many locals as possible since it is more cost effective. “All the people were great. It was very easy to secure locations and the film office was wonderful. The Governor also paid us a visit, so it was a welcoming experience.”


Snowbate is the Minnesota Film Jobs Production Program that was passed to create production jobs in Minnesota. The program is a reimbursement of 15 to 20 percent of Minnesota production expenditures, and eligible productions that spend less than $5 million may receive a 15-percent reimbursement of production costs within a 12-month period. Productions that spend an excess of $5 million in Minnesota may be eligible for up to 20-percent reimbursement within a 12-month period. The incentive is available to feature films, national television or Internet programs, commercials, music videos and documentaries.

For feature productions, at least 60 percent of principal photography must be conducted in Minnesota. For television, the production company must be based in Minnesota, and a minimum of 60 percent of the production budget must be spent in the state. In addition, Minnesota expenditures for TV commercial production and post-production are exempt from Minnesota sales tax. As for accommodations, all production personnel who occupy a hotel or other lodging for 30 days or more are exempt from state lodging tax.

Minnesota also offers diverse shooting locations for filmmakers. Not only is it the home of the nation’s largest shopping mall, but it’s also the source of the Mississippi River and features lakes, forests, prairies and the lively Twin Cities. Minnesota also has production and post-production services and a skilled crew base.

The Minnesota Film & TV Board is the state’s best resource for filmmakers researching valuable production information, such as obtaining permits and securing locations. Their website contains a location photo library and production guide to help filmmakers with their production needs.


Currently, Ohio’s tax-incentive program is pending, but Director of Film Columbus Gail Mezey says that it’s still on the agenda of Ohio lawmakers. She informs me that in Governor Ted Strickland's State of the State Address last January, he said, “We will create a film tax credit designed to spur the growth of the film industry, bringing new jobs and creative energy to Ohio.”

“[The program is now] on the heels of Governor Ted Strickland's veto of the 25-percent tax credit last month,” Mezey reports. “A couple of days ago, Senator Tom Patton announced plans to push forward with the better-written legislation this session. The film tax credit is a ‘top priority’ for caucuses this spring.”

Greater Cleveland also has a pending incentive program in which legislation proposes a 25-percent transferable motion-picture tax credit that draws input from several major players in the film and television industry, including Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount Pictures, the Walt Disney Company, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Independent Film and Television Alliance. According to the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, the program has substantial support in the Ohio House of Representatives and Senate, and they believe it will be passed early next year.

The Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky Film Commission offers accommodation assistance to productions through its database of every hotel in the region. And the 10.5-percent room tax is refunded after 30 days of occupation. While some parks and public spaces require a small fee in Cincinnati, the city only requires a permit and insurance, which the film commission helps to obtain for productions.

Tax incentives aside, many productions come to Ohio for the locations. The state is known for its abundance of scenic farmland, but it also offers filmmakers three cityscape backdrops to choose from: Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus. Ohio also features rolling hills, Lake Erie and the Ohio River.

“We had an independent movie that shot here last year that chose central Ohio for an ‘on the road’-type movie that was to take place coast to coast, says Mezey. “Our crews, talent and locations draw people to this region. There are several independent films in pre-production and development. In Central Ohio we are in talks with a reality show to do a long-term project. MTV was here this month, as well as national commercials for Under Armor and The Dave Thomas Foundation. There is a fair amount of smaller to mid-range independent movies shot in this region, a lot of them horror movies. There are five Fortune 500 companies in central Ohio, and they generate a great deal of production.”

While some filmmakers prefer to bring their own crew to Ohio, Mezey reports that the state has plenty of depth in this market. “We have directors, producers, art department, location scouts and managers, grips, makeup and wardrobe stylists that live in central Ohio and that work all over the world,” she says. “Some producers and directors are surprised by the caliber of individuals working in central Ohio, and some already know and hire our crews no matter where in the world they are shooting.”

As for Ohio’s cast base, they have a small SAG pool, but a large selection of AFTRA and non-union actors. “We have a rather vast and deep talent pool,” notes Mezey. “There are theater schools at Ohio State and Otterbein, as well as many regional theater groups. Projects usually cast here.”


Wisconsin’s Film Tax Credit Program provides a 25-percent refundable tax credit on direct production expenditures. The Film Production Services Credit and the Film Production Company Investment Credit are the two components of this incentive.

The Film Production Services Credit provides tax credits for production expenditures, sales tax and the salary and wages of Wisconsin residents. Eligible formats include film, video, television, electronic games or broadcast advertising, and the production company must acquire $50,000 for productions shorter than 30 minutes, or $100,000 for productions longer than 30 minutes –– this includes the salaries and wages of all of the eligible employees on the production for the period ending 12 months after the month in which principal photography begins.

For income paid to Wisconsin residents, 25 percent is a nonrefundable credit equal to 25 percent of the salaries or wages of local employees. The maximum credit per employee is $25,000, and the salary or wages of the two highest-paid employees cannot factor into the amount. This credit can be carried forward for up to 15 years to offset Wisconsin’s income-tax liability.

In addition, production expenditures in Wisconsin are refundable credits equal to 25 percent of eligible spending, and the expenditures must be directly used to produce an accredited production.

The Film Production Company Investment Credit provides up to 15 percent of expenditures for personal property and the purchase, construction, rehabilitation, remodeling or repair of real property used for the production. In addition, at least 50 percent of the property's use must be for the claimant's business as a film production company.

In regards to backdrops, Wisconsin provides pristine lakes, preserved parks among its “wealth of locations,” according to Ann Rawlinson of Location Wisconsin. She also mentions that Wisconsin is not solely farmland. “Wisconsin is somewhat of a chameleon, as it can double for almost any Midwestern state, and Canadian and European locations as well. We have a lot of very different-looking terrain.” Location Wisconsin is a resourceful company that provides location scouting, site management, transportation and extra “real people” casting, and it helps filmmakers to acquire accommodations, catering and any other production needs.

It is now more convenient to shoot interiors in Wisconsin since RDI Stages opened in Milwaukee last January. The former WW2 manufacturing plant is now a film production studio complete with production offices, an editing suite and three soundstages ranging from 1,400 to 4,800 square feet. This facility opens the doors for many new Milwaukee productions. So who’s up for a “Laverne and Shirley” remake?

Detroit Film Office

Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky Film Commission

Greater Cleveland Film Commission

Minnesota Film & TV Board


South Dakota Film Office

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