The state is missing out on millions in jobs, says the executive director of Washington Filmworks.
There are plenty of flyover states in politics. But there’s only one when it comes to film and TV production. And that’s us.
When Hollywood heads this way, looking for lush green forests ringed with mist, crisp white mountains and a certain weird vibe, Washington fits the bill, of course.
But we just can’t seem to pass the bill that would offer the kind of tax incentives production companies need to come here and stay within budget.
So they skip us altogether and head to Vancouver, B.C., the Hollywood of the North, where $250 million in tax incentives are on the table, the actors unions demand less on the back end and the place looks enough like us to pass.
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Or they only go as far as Oregon, where $10 million in annual incentives have been enough to land one network series (NBC’s “Grimm”) and two cable shows (IFC’s “Portlandia,” which makes sense; and TNT’s “The Librarian”) — and keep plenty of residents employed.
Amy Lillard has been working for years to change that. As the executive director of Washington Filmworks, it is her job to show state lawmakers that an investment in film production is a good one, with a high rate of return.
Consider: Between February 2007 and the end of last year, the state supported 101 film projects that spent $96.3 million — $44 million of which went to resident workers.
“That’s a 375 percent return,” Lillard said.
So she is busy working for the passage of Senate Bill 6027, which would extend and increase what’s called the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program (MPCP). It’s a perennial duty, an annual plea she’s made for the last several years.
In addition to that, Lillard is this year fighting House Bill 2150, which would “reform” the business and occupation tax — but would be funded by eliminating several tax-incentive programs, including the MPCP.
Right now, Washington only has $3.5 million in annual tax incentives — the fifth smallest fund, out of the 39 states that have one.
This year’s incentive fund will already be drained this month. Last year, it was gone by May.
The bill would double the fund amount over the next two years and by 2019, increase it to $10 million.
But even that doesn’t seem enough, considering what Washington state could put on the small and large screen.
Without the money to help production costs, Lillard is turning projects away. She won’t say what they are, but assured me they are “iconic Washington stories. Things we own in some way, shape or form.”
The mind whirs. The Weinstein Company is producing “The Boys in the Boat,” about the University of Washington crew team’s trip to victory in the 1936 Olympics. “Twin Peaks” is being revived.
Am I close?
It doesn’t matter, Lillard demurred.
“They can’t come here. We just don’t have the incentives.”
So, they are going somewhere else.
Lillard blames, in part, the misconception that the incentives are a big break for Hollywood. But the money isn’t paid out until the production companies can prove they’ve invested in jobs here.
“I acknowledge the challenges in Olympia,” she said, mentioning budget shortfalls and the demand for education funding.
“But if you’re looking at revenue and jobs, we have a proven concept,” Lillard continued. “There’s value in being on the big screen. You go to the airport and you have ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ T-shirts, still.”
So why doesn’t she spend her days with her head on her desk, defeated, while companies like Boeing get millions in tax incentives to keep the 787 production in Washington state?
“I love it,” she said. “I know these (film) people. And I don’t have their gifts. I can’t stand in front of a camera or design a production. But I can create an environment where creative people can succeed.”
Lillard learned to take on the impossible early on. She grew up in Tustin, Calif. where her father, “a mad scientist entrepreneur” started a pharmaceutical-manufacturing company, determined to find a cure for cancer.
“It was an environment where you shoot for the moon,” she said, “where anything was possible.”
It explains why her brother, Matthew, pursued acting. And succeeded. He’s been in “Scream” and “Scooby-Doo” films, but is probably best known as the guy who slept with George Clooney’s wife in “The Descendants.”
Lillard worked as a publicist in the film industry, worked at the Seattle International Film Festival and the Reel Cinerama Film Festival until 2007, when she started Washington Filmworks.
The first year, they couldn’t give all their incentive money away. But then things started to pop. Lynn Shelton started directing. So did Megan Griffiths. Lacey Leavitt. In a sense, the incentive fund helped build their careers.
But growing it has been one of the biggest challenges of Lillard’s work.
She lives in Magnolia with her 7-year-old son, Dax, and her partner, Ben Closson, a local chef (Earth and Ocean, Terra Plata) she met while putting on a Washington-themed wine dinner at the Sundance Film Festival.
On March 17, Lillard will make one last push for the incentive fund, when some 220 members of the film community — actors, directors, designers and such — will descend on Olympia.
An apocalyptic set inspired by the Syfy show “Z Nation” (produced in Spokane) will be set up near the state capital. Actors dressed as zombies will wander around and a film-catering company will serve food while other film constituents keep some 70 appointments with legislators to plead their case and ask for support.
“We’re saying, ‘Come visit the set. This is what we do. This is who we are,’ ” she said.
It may just be what Olympia needs to keep Washington from being passed over.
“The passion in this industry,” Lillard said, “ is infectious.”