Promoters see bright future for Alaska in movie business

NEW VANCOUVER? Boosters want to build $1 billion movie industry.

September 13, 2010 

Another major movie is expected to begin filming in Alaska early next year, a local film insider told Anchorage business people on Monday.

The filmmakers are talking to actors Viggo Mortensen ("The Lord of the Rings"), Liam Neeson ("Taken") and Oscar winner Jeff Bridges ("Crazy Heart") about playing the lead role, said Carolyn K. Robinson, executive producer for Spenard-based SprocketHeads LLC.

Preproduction for the film could begin as early as this fall, she said.

Meantime, NANA Development Corp. announced Monday that the company recently bought a 33 percent stake in a local film production studio, Evergreen Films Inc. The company is spending "several million dollars" on the deal, President Helvi Sandvik said.

The announcements came as local film boosters on Monday pitched Anchorage business leaders their goal of turning the city into the new Vancouver by building a $1 billion Alaska film industry over the next decade.

"When you get a major corporation like NANA saying they're going to help participate ... that's a big vote of confidence," said Evergreen Films chief executive Mike Devlin. Among other ventures, his studio has been developing the popular Dana Stabenow mystery novels into a series that's set to be shot in Alaska.

The first modern, major movie to be filmed entirely in the state -- "Everybody Loves Whales," starring Drew Barrymore and now Ted Danson -- begins filming Thursday in Anchorage.

"We're just shooting, I think some interiors that don't involve any of our main actors," said David Linck, a spokesman for the film.

The film crews will be working Thursdays through Mondays this fall, allowing the crews to shoot in local buildings, such as schools, on weekends.

For decades, movies about Alaska have almost always been filmed somewhere else. Moviemakers credit the state's new tax incentive program -- which allows them to recoup as much as 44 percent of their costs -- with luring new productions.

In other words, Alaska essentially subsidizes its fledging film industry by allowing companies that buy the credits to save on taxes that they would otherwise pay to the state.

Productions that hire Alaskans, shoot in remote locations or film during the off-season are eligible to save more money. The idea is to launch a new industry in a state that leans on flagging oil production to create jobs and pay bills.

"It's a renewable resource," said NANA Development's Sandvik.

NANA is the business arm of Kotzebue-based NANA Regional Corp., the Alaska Native regional corporation for Northwest Alaska. A partner in the Red Dog Mine, the company already provides catering, security and other services for the oil industry. Now executives hope it can do the same for filmmakers.


The model for growth in Anchorage is Vancouver, a city nicknamed "Hollywood North," where production spending generated $1.2 billion in 2008. That included 20,000 production jobs, plus thousands more support workers such as taxi drivers and beauticians, Devlin said.

New Mexico and Louisiana have also succeeded in wooing Hollywood producers in search of tax breaks and refunds. Other states tried and stumbled.

In Iowa, for example, corruption in the state film office sank that government's effort to nurture a film economy, Devlin said. Others failed to stoke enthusiasm for the industry.

What Anchorage needs now are soundstages, large buildings where you can build sets and film regardless of the weather, he said. Enticing scripted television shows, which are more expensive than reality TV and can cost millions per episode to produce, is also key.

Sandvik said the company's executives have seen first-hand the results of other cities' efforts to court the industry.

They've waited on film crews before crossing the street in Vancouver, where NANA meets with the Canadian partners in the Red Dog Mine.

In February, NANA officials visited Louisiana to talk about offshore oil and gas development. "We had to hang out in the rain while Nicolas Cage was filming a movie," she said.


Robinson, the SprocketHeads co-founder, said the director of the newest Alaska-based movie and "his international team" recently toured the state scouting locations and meeting Alaskans. Among the stops: a scouting visit to four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser's kennel in Big Lake, she said.

"The film executive told me flat out that they did a multi-country, multiple-state comparison, calculating in our film incentive program," Robinson said. "The bottom line said shoot in Alaska."

Robinson -- who urged business honchos at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon to picture an industry based on exporting film canisters rather than oil barrels -- said she can't talk much about the movie yet.

More than 30 productions have pre-qualified for the Alaska tax credit, Alaska Film Office manager Dave Worrell told the business crowd. All told, the estimated budget for those projects amounts to more than $99 million in spending in Alaska, he said.

But Worrell cautioned in an e-mail last month that several productions that pre-qualified may not get made -- and, as a result, won't receive tax credits.

"We had a flurry of films in-state for preliminary scouting over the summer, but it's too early to know which ones will receive their greenlight and start on-the-ground production," Worrell wrote in late August.

Not all film and television productions are eligible for tax credits, the film office said. Crews shooting political ads, news stories and pornography have to pay full price.

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at Twitter updates: Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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