Group calls for changes to Alaska filmmaking subsidy

Kyle Hopkins

A newly formed group of Alaska filmmakers says its members have been left out in the cold during the current movie boom, losing jobs to local rivals on major productions such as "The Frozen Ground."

The coalition, calling itself the Alaska Film Alliance, on Wednesday called for a host of changes to the state film subsidy program. One major goal: Making plum movie jobs more competitive, members said.

"The information about upcoming productions must be more transparent so that there can be competitive bidding by the professionals in our local film community," member Ron Holmstrom, a Screen Actors Guild representative for Alaska, told reporters at Cyrano's Off Center Playhouse downtown.

"To date, the small group that engineered the passage of the initial (film subsidy) program has managed to become the gatekeepers, so to speak, of the industry and also has a monopoly on information and job placement," Holmstrom said.

Some of the people he was talking about -- the head of a production services company who championed the incentive; a casting director who has worked on the past two major films -- listened from the back row of the theater. Casey Reynolds, a conservative talk radio host who has criticized elements of the existing subsidy program, sat near the stage.

Among the fledgling group's suggestions: Reform the way the subsidy is awarded, possibly by eliminating the circuitous tax-credit system and cutting checks directly to film-makers, bolstering existing Alaska-hire incentives and tethering a portion of the subsidy to building film infrastructure such as sound stages in the state.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, who has cultivated the film-incentive program, said no suggestions for amending the subsidy are off the table.

As for calls for more competition for movie jobs and more information from the state about productions that might come to Alaska, Ellis said it appears some members of the new group felt their needs weren't being heard by their existing trade organization, the Alaska Film Group.

"The people that are working and have contracts are very happy. The other people are less happy. That's capitalism. That's competition," said Ellis, who introduced legislation that created the subsidy in 2008.

The film incentive program allows moviemakers to recoup 30 to 44 percent of their Alaska spending at the state's expense. The producers are awarded tax credits that are sold to companies that pay a corporate income tax in Alaska. The result: The state foots the bill for about a third of the budget of any eligible movie filmed entirely in Alaska.

The state has refused to say which companies buy the tax credits or exactly what the producers are spending money on in Alaska. The salaries of movie stars and other highly paid out-of-state workers are eligible for the subsidy.

A bill that would extend the film incentives is currently before the House Finance Committee. The new Alaska Film Alliance, which says it includes about two dozen filmmakers and support-business owners, says the Alaska program is "seriously flawed" but can be corrected with various fixes and tweaks.

Meantime, enthusiasm for state film incentive programs is cooling nationwide as states seek to slash their budgets and question the bang for the buck they receive from under-writing movie productions instead of social programs and roads.

In Alaska, the stakes are high, with up to $200 million in future film subsidies dependent upon Legislative approval. Anchorage businesspeople who have worked on both "Big Miracle" and "The Frozen Ground," worried that the new group's criticism of the program could endanger its reauthorization in the Legislature.

A small drama unfurled following the news conference at Cyrano's as SprocketHeads film production services company owner Carolyn Robinson stood at the corner of the stage, locked in a heated conversation with Holmstrom.

"This is hanging the incentive!" Robinson told Holmstrom, who defended his criticism of the current program.

"Debate is always healthy," he said.

"Now we're getting everyone's attention, and we're all talking together. For instance, Carolyn's mad at me. This is healthy," Holmstrom said as the pair prepared to leave the theater.

This is nothing, Robinson told him. Wait to see how mad she'll be if the incentive renewal fails to pass.

"It'll pass. It has to pass. But these things have to be addressed," replied Holmstrom, who plays the lawyer for John Cusack's character in "The Frozen Ground."

Holmstrom and other members of the new film group also are calling for "extensive public hearings" on the subsidy in the state House.

"Amen for that," said Finance Committee Co-Chairman Bill Stoltze, a Chugiak Republican who did not vote for the original subsidy program and said he remains skeptical of its worth. "I think this deserves a lot more scrutiny."

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