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Tuesday, 14 July 2009 01:00

Top 10 American Film Locations (2009)

Written by  Jennifer Marino
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Thanks to lucrative tax incentives springing up across the United States and its territories, filmmakers have more budget-friendly location options than ever. But, while tax breaks play a huge role in determining where to film, there are many other factors that cannot be ignored. This annual report is an evaluation of locations offering a combination of the best tax incentives, crew base, infrastructure and other unique resources...

Thanks to lucrative tax incentives springing up across the United States and its territories, filmmakers have more budget-friendly location options than ever. But, while tax breaks play a huge role in determining where to film, there are many other factors that cannot be ignored. This annual report is an evaluation of locations offering a combination of the best tax incentives, crew base, infrastructure and other unique resources that rank as this year’s 10 most popular domestic filming destinations.

Production crew on location in Alaska’s Cook Inlet Photo courtesy of John Markel, Alaska Film LocationsALASKA

Alaska’s potential tax incentive total is a whopping 44 percent: 30-percent transferable tax credit on qualified expenditures available for filmmakers who spend a minimum of $100,000 within 24 consecutive months; an extra two-percent by filming between October 1 and March 30 of each year; an additional two-percent for filming in rural areas; and an additional 10-percent is granted for wages paid to Alaska residents, with no salary cap per employee/per production. 

Hiring Alaska residents can be a perk, since most of the crewmembers are experienced in working under extreme conditions. “Because we want to see more Alaskans become involved in new careers in the industry, state government is working with education, non-profit and trade organizations to provide training to meet [the] increasing demand for in-state crew and services,” says Alaska Tourism & Film Development Manager Caryl McConkie.

McConkie reports that Alaska businesses are gearing up for the demands, starting with a Los Angeles-based production company that has already established duel production facilities in Anchorage and has plans to break ground for a sound stage in November 2009.
           
Known for its unique and astonishing scenery, Alaska hosts several documentaries, documentary series, commercials and reality TV with discussions of several feature films on the horizon. 

CALIFORNIA

Marina del Rey, Calif. Photo by Mark NormandOn February 20, 2009 Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger signed a bill into law creating a tax incentive for film and television productions in California. According to the California Film Commission, the five-year $500 million plan allows for a $100 million a year tax break per production. Feature films with a production budget between $1 million and $75 million are also eligible for a 20-percent tax credit, as are TV movies and miniseries with a $500,000 minimum production budget, and new TV series licensed for original distribution on basic cable with a $1 million minimum budget.

In an effort to win back runaway productions, the CFO says that California is offering a 25-percent tax break for TV series relocating to the state. Other productions eligible for the 25-percent tax credit include television series currently filming in California (and that have filmed all prior seasons outside of California), and independent films with a $1 million to $10 million budget (and that are produced by privately or publicly traded companies that own no more than 25 percent of the producing company). Additionally, tax credits issued solely to independent film productions may be transferred or sold to an unrelated party. Other qualified taxpayers may carry over tax credits for five years and transfer tax credits to an affiliate. The new tax incentive combined with California’s powerful infrastructure may now give producers second thoughts about leaving home.

“Because only $10 million has been assigned to independent films, it is anticipated that applications received on July 1, the first day that productions can apply, will quickly exhaust available funds.  Consequently, recipients of these funds will be chosen by lottery from all of the applications received the first day,” says Dama Claire, production executive of The Incentives Office, which helps productions by providing information and sorting out choices.

According to Amy Lemisch, executive director of the California Film Commission, the average annual spending by the entertainment industry in California is $36 billion. And although California has suffered a drop in feature film production, Lemisch anticipates an increase in 2009 due to the newly enacted California Film & Television Tax Credit Program set to begin in July of 2009.

Los Angeles is the primary hub for California film and television productions. The city’s abundant services and locations make it the ideal place for filming, and its numerous studios create a range of productions, from features and television to animation. Filmmaking guides such as LA 411 and Creative Handbook provide substantial aid for navigating through the city’s overwhelming resources.

The city also boasts two of the country’s top film schools, the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. One might even say that California’s strong crew base is as massive as the state’s deficit, and they are also highly skilled! 

“We have such a strong production infrastructure in California and such a long history of providing resources,” says Lemisch. “Certainly our state partners, [the] Highway Patrol, Department of Transportation and State Parks & Beaches, are well versed in accommodating production requests, and each of those departments provides full-time staff dedicated exclusively to handling productions. On the local level, all of the major production centers –– Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco –– have dedicated experienced teams to facilitate productions. Our rural areas, from deserts to farms to coastal regions, provide localized support as well through our network of regional film offices.”

Beside Los Angeles, there are many other picturesque locations in California, such as the San Francisco Bay area, which features diverse depictions, including cityscapes, fairy-tale-like Victorian houses, redwood forests and cliff-hugging beaches.
“I can only project that if there is more filming in San Francisco ─ as there once was ─ then the infrastructure will expand to meet the demand,” says Stephanie Coyote of the San Francisco Film Commission. Coyote also reports that an NBC Universal pilot is currently shooting in the city.

According to Lemisch, California productions for 2009 include the feature films Oliver's Arrow, Thor, Iron Man 2 and Toy Story 3, while television productions include “House M.D.,” “Heroes,” “The Office,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Entourage,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Saving Grace” and “The Closer.”

MICHIGAN

Michigan’s incentive package for film productions includes a refundable, assignable tax credit ranging from 30 to 42 percent of the amount of a production’s eligible expenditures. The required in-state minimum spend is only $50,000, and the incentive has no caps, except for a $2 million per hire cap on wages or loan-out corporations. In addition, qualifying expenditures made in one of the 103 designated Core Communities are eligible for a 42-percent tax credit, while qualified expenditures made in non-core communities are eligible for a 40-percent tax credit. Productions using out-of-state crews receive a 30-percent tax credit.

With astonishing incentives and a skilled crew base, Michigan has been admired by many filmmakers. “Working in Ann Arbor with an amazing cast and crew did not disappoint,” says Dama Claire, who co-produced the feature film Betty Anne Waters in Michigan.

Other recent productions in Michigan include the films Hopeful Notes and Up in the Air, TV shows and several commercials. “We have another dozen that have applied so far in 2009,” says Janet Lockwood, film commissioner of the Michigan Film Office. Lockwood also reports that Michigan currently has only one studio, Grace & Wild. Two additional complexes have been announced with plans to open in late 2009: Motown Motion Pictures (in partnership with Raleigh Studios in Pontiac) and Wonderstruck, an animation studio in Detroit. 

GEORGIA

Georgia offers a transferable tax credit of 20 percent, with the option of an additional 10 percent if the producer allows for the placement of an animated Georgia promotional logo in the finished entertainment product. The minimum spend is $500,000, since W-2 wages are capped at $500,000, but loan-out corporations and independent contractors are not capped, nor is there a project cap.

The state offers a Sales & Use Tax Exemption that, according to the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office, allows qualified companies to get an immediate point-of-purchase sales-tax exemption that will save productions up to eight percent on most below-the-line materials, service purchases or rentals.

“We have had 19 feature films in Georgia since the new legislation was signed in May of 2008, which is a 300-percent increase over 2007,” says Bill Thompson, deputy commissioner of Georgia's Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office. Among the state’s current productions is the feature film Get Low, starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray. “We have four features on the ground right now, plus one TV series starting up on April 6, and two features starting April 20,” says Thompson. “Three more features will start in June.”

The late ‘80s significantly contributed to Georgia’s ever-growing infrastructure when features like Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes filmed in the state. “We have one large studio complex just south of Atlanta called Riverwood Studios and several other smaller studios in Atlanta,” Thompson notes. “We also have several lighting and grip companies, two truck companies, a film lab and significant post-production and music scoring companies in Georgia. … Entertainment Partners and Cast & Crew are here, as well as Cinelease and Hollywood Trucks. We are expecting more vendors to come here soon.” Thompson credits Georgia’s strong crew base, eight to nine crews deep, for making it possible for many features to simultaneously film in the state.

NEW YORK

Trinity Church in Manhattan, N.Y. Photo by Jennifer MarinoNew York has dealt with their fair share of panic-induced events this year: swine flu outbreaks, a low-flying Boeing 747 (for a White House promotion), and the exhausted funds of the film tax-incentive program. However, the state has replenished the film fund by adding $350 million into the program to fill the tax credit, which will last either one year or whenever the incentive runs out. Nonetheless, New York City’s talented crew base, multitude of resources and overwhelming infrastructure allow the state to remain competitive.

According to the New York State Film Office, the film and television production tax credit will remain at 30 percent of qualified costs. The fully refundable tax credit will total 35 percent of qualified costs when combined with the five-percent New York City tax credit. New requirements for the program: projects claiming less than $1 million in credits will receive the full value of their credit in the tax year that the production is completed; projects claiming between $1 million and $5 million in credits will receive half of their credit in the year that the production is completed and half of their credit the next tax year; and projects over $5 million will receive their credit in three equal installments over three years.

New York’s Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting facilitates productions throughout the five boroughs. Their website offers interactive maps, shooting guidelines and a feature on NYC Green Screen, which offers resources and tips for New York productions to use “Before the Shoot, During the Shoot and After the Shoot,” and celebrates industry efforts to be environmentally conscious.

ILLINOIS

According to the Illinois Film Office, the Film Production Tax Credit, which took effect on January 1, 2009, is a 30-percent transferable tax credit on all qualifying expenditures, and it has no expiration date. However, only resident’s salaries qualify with a $100,000 cap per hire. To be eligible, feature productions must spend $100,000 in the state. Production companies must also be willing to promote diversity by making an effort to hire a percentage of local minorities. An additional 15-percent labor credit is available if Illinois-resident hires make more than $1,000 and live in geographic areas with high poverty or high unemployment, as determined by the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. A copy of the employee's Illinois driver’s license or state identification showing an address in the impoverished area is necessary to receive this credit.

The state’s crew contains both below-the-line and above-the-line personnel, and, according to the production database listed with the Illinois Film Office, the crew base includes cameramen, assistant directors, directors, coordinators and cinematographers, as well as referral lists for directors, electricians, editors, grips, gaffers, location scouts, producers and other production needs. Additionally, Illinois hosts numerous studios and sound stages.

A modern transportation system places Illinois among the top when it comes to infrastructure –– the state provides air, rail, ground and waterway access to all major U.S. cities and international airports. The state is anchored by one of the most beautiful, sophisticated cities in the world that go way beyond the scope of Chicago’s iconic skyline, world famous architecture, gritty back alleys and unique, historic neighborhoods. And don’t forget about the breathtaking natural vistas, mid-size industrial centers, picturesque farmland and small towns seemingly frozen in time. There are plenty of rivers, prairies, forest preserves and 58 miles of pristine Lake Michigan beaches.

The film office also boasts that Illinois is the only state in the country to incorporate a diversity provision into its Film Tax Credit, showcasing the state’s dedication to diversifying the film industry. The Illinois Film Office and the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity have worked diligently with the local production community to promote and encourage minority training and hiring. Recent training events in Illinois include Set Construction Training, a Grip and Electric Training Session with IATSE Local 476, a Production Assistant Training Seminar, a Minority Vendor Mentor Training Seminar II and a Diversity Awareness Seminar.

LOUISIANA

Southern hospitality is alive and well, and Louisiana has the numbers to prove it. The state ─ once again ─ graces the list of the top 10 filming locations in the United States. Louisiana not only boasts a steady increase in overall productions over the past several years, but over an 80-percent increase in 2008 alone, according to Christopher Stelly, director of Louisiana Film & Television. “The increases we have seen is because our crew base has grown, our infrastructure has matured, and our office has built long-lasting relationships with major industry professionals,” he says. “We have earned a measure of credibility, sustainability and reliability. In other words, when you come to Louisiana, you know the quality of service you will receive.”

Louisiana’s Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit Program offers a 25-percent transferable tax credit for productions spending at least $300,000 within the state, and it is applicable to full-length feature films, videos, television series and commercials, with no talent or project caps. The credit is based on the total in-state expenditures that are paid to vendors and other entities based out of and licensed to do business in Louisiana.  The state also offers an additional 10-percent labor tax credit for all productions hiring Louisiana residents, capped at $1 million per hire.

For those productions looking for a little extra to add to Louisiana’s already generous incentives, Jefferson Parish offers “an additional three-percent cash rebate, capped at $125,000 for productions that spend at least $150,000 locally ─ with few exceptions,” says Cherreen Gegenheimer of the Jefferson Parish Office of the President.

Shreveport, Louisiana’s third-largest city, has also proved itself to be quite the competitor when it comes to securing a spot as one the most sought-out production locations in the country. Shreveport is home to four soundstages, and construction on Millennium Studios will soon be underway.  

“Shreveport-Bossier is host to all types of production: features, short films, documentaries, music videos, television and commercials,” says Arlena Acree, director of the Shreveport Film, Media and Entertainment. “Shreveport will be a production center by IATSE, effective August 1. The City of Shreveport is also looking at passing some local film-tax incentives soon. Our area has very diverse locations that have doubled for New York, Miami, Alaska, Amsterdam, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Maine, Kansas City, Senegal Africa [and] the biblical village of Sodom, [with a] movie set still in place. [We also have doubles for] the Bering Sea, [which has] the wave pool used in The Guardian still in operation, the North Pole, New Hampshire, Miami, Oklahoma, Memphis, Arizona, Los Angeles, Texas, Washington, D.C., Portland, Oregon and Paris, France.”

Louisiana’s film industry is blossoming in this time of economic crisis. “We have a strong, vibrant and deep crew base,” says Stelly. “Louisiana, statewide, is around eight to nine crews deep! [That’s] an astounding 400-percent increase since 2002. As the industry grows, we have seen around 83 percent of overall budgets being spent in Louisiana and qualifying to earn credits. This is up from an estimated 33 percent when the program began. This fact alone indicates that our infrastructure has grown, and that most goods [and] services are being offered to production in our state. We have camera rentals, grip and lighting, post capabilities and much more to offer.”

In addition to Louisiana’s major studios, such as StageWorks, Celtic Media Center and Mansfield Studios, the state is the home of one of the most unique production attractions in the country, the Louisiana Wave Studio. The studio is “the only feature film facility in the world that can automatically generate a variety of waves at the touch of a button,” according the City of Shreveport’s website. Louisiana Film & Television notes that the state’s newest facility, Louisiana Film Studios in Elmwood, has recently lured in the production for The Expendables, directed by Sylvester Stallone. The film is scheduled to open in April 2010. Second Line Stages, located in the Historic Lower Garden District of New Orleans, is also pulling its weight to make Louisiana a heavyweight contender for the coveted top spot of film locations. The complex, which is certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), will feature a main campus measuring 90,000 square feet, and contain three sound stages measuring 7,000, 12,500 and 18,000 square feet.

“Northeast Louisiana has a number of undiscovered locations from natural and agricultural to universities and period architecture,” boasts Sheila Snow, communications director of the Monroe-West Monroe Convention & Visitors Bureau.

 “In the natural sense, we have hard-bottom bayous, lakes, rivers, piney forests for greenery year-round and beautiful rolling hills.” Snow adds that American Airlines, Continental, Northwest, and Delta service the local airport with daily flights to Dallas, Houston, Memphis and Atlanta. The I-20 runs throughout northeast Louisiana, making overnight transportation of equipment to and from Dallas, Shreveport and Atlanta not very difficult.

Located two hours south of Shreveport and two hours north of Baton Rouge, Central Louisiana in Film (CLIF) is a regional effort to attract film productions to eight parishes/counties comprised of the city of Alexandria, the Alexandria/Pineville Convention & Visitors Bureau, the England Authority and the Greater Alexandria Economic Development Authority (GAEDA).

Along with Louisiana’s state incentives of 25 percent Investor Tax Credits, 10 percent up to $1 million Employment/Labor Tax Credits and Infrastructure Tax Credits, CLIF offers local incentives that include cast and crew lodging discounts, uniformed security, complimentary passes to local attractions, events, theatres and restaurants, financial incentives based upon economic impact, local crew coordination, complementary production offices, complimentary casting calls, fast-tracking of government permitting and free location scouting.
           
CLIF’s most recent production, My Own Love Song doubled for Kansas and next is Cypress Moon Production’s The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, which will begin preproduction in late July. The primary contact for CLIF is Chief of Development at the Mayor's Office of Economic Development Bill Hess at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Despite all of Louisiana’s tempting incentives, Stelly says that the state’s “greatest natural resource” is their homegrown talent. “And [along with] our amazing culture [of] music and cuisine, we have wonderful creative people in all aspects of film. Louisiana is an experience.”

NEW MEXICO

According to the New Mexico Film Office, the state offers a 25-percent tax rebate on all direct production expenditures ─ including New Mexico labor ─ in the form of a refund, rather than a credit (which is subject to taxation by the State of New Mexico). There is no sales tax under the Film Crew Advancement Program, and a 50-percent wage reimbursement is offered by New Mexico for on-the-job training of local residents in advanced below-the-line crew positions. The state offers a film investment loan program. The incentive is remarkable since there is no cap, minimum budget or minimum-spend requirement. Also, there is no minimum-percentage shooting day or pre-qualifying requirement.

“Although down from FY 2008, FY 2009 has been a strong year thus far, despite SAG issues and the downturn in the economy,” says Director of the New Mexico Film Office Lisa Strout. “[We’ve had] constant production [with] six network/cable television programs/series and 16 major feature films, including The Book of Eli with Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. We do foresee a major increase in production in FY 2010 and subsequent years due to the solidity and reliability of our film incentives, our deep crew base [of] 3,000, 250 film specific businesses and services, and world-class sound stages, with a second studio complex underway this year in Santa Fe. In addition, New Mexico has an incentive model with a strong ROI, a balanced state budget, and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, all factors that will become increasingly worrisome for other states.”

CONNECTICUT

Clinton Harbor in Connecticut Photo credit: Mark Dixon, Connecticut Film DivisionConnecticut’s Digital Media & Motion Picture Tax credit offers eligible production companies a transferable tax credit of up to 30 percent for qualified digital media and motion picture production, pre-production and post-production in-state expenses exceeding $50,000. Out-of-state purchases and rentals qualify for one half of the tax credit at 15 percent. Additionally, the state has a talent cap of $15 million per hire.

Connecticut offers a slew of other tax incentives, including Digital Animation Production Company, Income Tax Withholding, Hotel Tax Exemption, Property Tax Exemption, Sales Tax Exemption and a 20-percent infrastructure tax credit. Such deals no doubt contributed to drawing big-budget films like Revolutionary Road and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to the state. According to the Film Division of the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism, Connecticut’s three tax credit programs (for production, infrastructure and digital animation) make the state an ideal production location.

The Film Division serves as a clearinghouse for information, economic incentives and services for filmmakers, and it offers an online Production Guide and Location Gallery. Interested productions can contact the Division for more information.

The film office also offers a wealth of information for productions interested in shooting in the state and provides an extensive production guide containing information on individual companies and services in an effort to make productions run as smoothly as possible. The guide is divided into eight sections, with each section subdivided into detailed categories. The Crew & Casting Calls page provides up-to-date information, and it is a valuable business-to-business resource that is used every day by individuals and companies throughout the U.S. and overseas seeking crews, equipment and services for their Connecticut projects. Additionally, Connecticut individuals and suppliers can post their information to obtain a cast and crew for their in-state productions.

Currently, NBC Universal is planning a new production facility at the Rich Forum Theater in Stamford. According to the film office, the facility will bring approximately 150 to 200 jobs and an initial infrastructure investment in excess of $3 million to the state. The 30-percent production tax credit on annual activity and 20-percent tax credit on infrastructure costs exceeding $1 million were among several factors cited by NBC Universal as reasons Connecticut is being considering as a location.

FLORIDA

The Florida Film, Television and Digital Media Incentive will offer eligible films, TV, commercials and music videos (with a minimum spend of $625,000 on qualified expenditures) a cash rebate of 15 percent to 22 percent. Multiple commercials and music videos are eligible for this rebate as well, with a minimum of $100,000 in qualified expenditures and with $500,000 or more in combined qualified expenditures per production. Indie feature films or documentaries 70 minutes or longer with qualified expenditures of $100,000 up to $625,000 are eligible for a cash rebate of 15 percent to 17 percent. And qualified digital media projects and interactive entertainment are eligible for a 10-percent cash rebate.

Additionally, Florida offers a five-percent off-season bonus. Productions (other than digital media and animated projects) that film a minimum of 75 percent of its principal photography on June 1 through November 30 may be eligible for additional savings, as well. And productions that are “family-friendly” may receive an additional two percent in savings.

Other districts in Florida, such as Palm Beach, offer soft incentives. For example, Palm Beach’s $150,000 Film and Television Incentive Grant Program is available to production companies that relocate to Palm Beach. According to the Palm Beach County Film & Television Commission, Palm Beach has six studios and stages, and has developed a network that allows the office to offer industry professionals hassle-free, one-stop permitting at no cost. In addition, the full-service film office is available to coordinate scouts, and they assist with numerous other aspects of film production.

“Florida was one of the first states to establish a state film office and the first state to open an office in Los Angeles to better serve production clients on the West Coast,” says Niki Welge, production coordinator of the Florida Governor's Office of Film and Entertainment. “In addition to Florida’s state office in Tallahassee and field office in Los Angeles, Florida enjoys a network of some 54 local film offices throughout the state that work together pursuing projects, responding to leads and providing seamless service to clients.”

Florida offers gorgeous locations from white-sand beaches and bayous to art deco establishments. And the state’s deep infrastructure includes state-of-the-art sound stages and facilities. “[Florida contains] the third-largest talent pool and the third-largest crew base in the United States,” adds Welge. “There are four major production centers in Florida –– Miami/South Florida, Orlando, Tampa/St. Petersburg and Jacksonville. Each area offers unique locations, experienced crew and top-notch service providers.”  Recent productions shot in Florida include the third season of “Burn Notice,” and the films Up in the Air, The Final Destination, I Am That Man, Endure and Burning Bright.

Alaska Film Office
www.alaskafilm.org

Alexandria Film Office
www.theheartoflouisiana.com

California Film Commission
www.film.ca.gov

Cast & Crew
www.castandcrew.com

Celtic Media Center
www.thecelticmediacenter.com

Cinelease
http://cinelease.com

City of New York’s Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting
www.nyc.gov/film

Connecticut Commission on Culture, Film Division
www.ctfilm.com

Creative Handbook
www.creativehandbook.com

Entertainment Partners
www.entertainmentpartners.com

Florida Governor's Office of Film and Entertainment
www.filminflorida.com

Georgia's Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office
www.georgia.org

Grace & Wild
www.gracewild.com

Hollywood Trucks
http://www.hollywoodtrucksllc.com/

Illinois Film Office
www.filmillinois.state.il.us

Jefferson Parish/Louisiana Film Office
www.jeffparish.net

Louisiana Film Studios
www.louisianastudios.com

Michigan Film Office
www.michigan.gov/filmoffice

NBC Universal
www.nbcuni.com

New Mexico Film Office
www.nmfilm.com

New York State Film Office
www.nylovesfilm.com

Northeast Louisiana Film Office
www.monroe-westmonroe.org

Palm Beach County Film & Television Commission
www.pbfilm.com

Riverwood Studios
www.riverwoodstudios.com

San Francisco Film Commission
www.filmsf.org

Second Line Stages
http://www.secondlinestages.com/

Shreveport Department of Economic Development
www.ci.shreveport.la.us

StageWorks
www.stageworksla.com

 

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