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Filmmakers pressed pause on Alaska productions in 2012

Kyle Hopkins

In the first of three "Baby Genius" movies filmed primarily in Alaska, diapered toddlers lip-synch dialogue about an international jewelry heist. Occasionally a sleepy Jon Voight appears. Low-cost sets wobble beneath the actors' feet.

Paid for with $5.8 million in state subsidies, the children's films are beginning to hit DVD and video streaming services during a slump in what Alaska movie boosters had hoped would be boom in big-budget features. While local movie-services businesses say dreams of transforming Alaska into "Hollywood North" aren't dead, the industry spent much of 2012 in hibernation.

"If something big doesn't happen in 2013, if we don't go heavily, deep into pre-production or better yet, shoot an entire movie in 2013, then we really need to dig in and figure out what's wrong," said Carolyn Robinson, owner of the Anchorage film production-services company SprocketHeads.

Of the 16 projects approved by the state to pre-qualify for an Alaska film subsidy since July, none are feature films. Nine are reality shows, applied for by the makers of "Coast Guard Alaska," "Yukon Men" and "Swamp People," among others. Five are commercials and two are documentaries.

The Nicolas Cage and John Cusack film "Frozen Ground," shot in Alaska in fall 2011, was expected to arrive in theaters last month, said Alaska Film Office development specialist David Worrell.

"Presumably they're working their way through the post-production process and making sure that it's going to do well," he said Tuesday." But in terms of why, specifically, they've decided to hold off, I do not know."

"They are anticipating a release in 2013," Worrell said.

A producer on the film, which is based on the 1980s hunt for Anchorage serial killer Robert Hansen, did not respond to questions.

STRAIGHT TO DVD

Meanwhile, "Baby Geniuses and the Mystery of the Crown Jewels" jumped straight to DVD and video streaming services Feb. 5.

The movie is one of three features that Kid Play Entertainment filmed in Alaska between March and July of 2011. The producers reported paying about $320,000 to Alaska workers on the first movie while receiving a state subsidy of $2.1 million under the five-year-old film incentive program.

The next two films received subsidies of $1.9 million each, with Alaska workers earning $191,000 and $236,000, respectively, according to the Alaska Film Office.

Critics flayed the original 1999 "Baby Geniuses" film starring Kathleen Turner and Christopher Lloyd. It scored a 2 percent "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes and rated a 6 out of 100 on Metacritic.

A 2004 sequel fared about the same. Reviewers have largely ignored the newest film.

"Parents need to know that the stars of 'Baby Geniuses and the Mystery of the Crown Jewels' is a sequel, of sorts, to two earlier Baby Geniuses movies that are generally considered to be among the worst movies ever produced, and this one doesn't aim any higher," wrote Common Sense Media, a non-profit that rates films, video games and TV shows for families. "Other toddlers may be the only audience that might appreciate seeing their peers onscreen, yet the babies' dialogue, one-liners, and pop-culture references will go way over the head of very young viewers."

Available to rent for $3.99 on iTunes, the movie is the tale of a team of pre-schoolers who secretly fight crime across the globe. Two more movies, filmed at the same time, are on the way.

Many local actors won recurring roles.

"With the exception of a handful of actors that we brought in from Los Angeles, the vast majority of the talent you see on screen is Alaskan, including many of the babies who star in the films," producer Jamee Natella told the Daily News in 2011.

Beyond the Alaska faces, there is little evidence on screen the films were shot in Alaska. The young actors toddle before green screens depicting sites in London, Paris and Italy and plot their crime-fighting in non-descript interior sets.

The movies were among the first to take advantage of the state film incentive subsidy approved in 2008. The incentives are aimed at building a crew and production base in Alaska, allowing filmmakers to shoot Alaska-based stories here rather than filming in established movie hubs like Vancouver, British Columbia.

INCENTIVES

The first major movie filmed under the incentive, Universal Pictures' "Big Miracle," was released in February 2012 to a disappointing $20.2 million at the U.S. box office. The producers reported more than $29.5 million in Alaska-based production expenses, though that figure includes the salary of out-of-state stars such as Drew Barrymore. It received $9.6 million in state subsidies.

"The picture itself may not have been a blockbuster hit, but the incentive itself did work for them and I think the film is doing really well now that it's gone to video," said Deborah Schildt, an Alaska-based casting director who worked on that film and "Frozen Ground."

Last year, the Legislature approved a 10-year, $200 million extension of the film subsidy program. Rep. Bill Stoltze, a Chugiak Republican, in February introduced a proposal to repeal the tax credits altogether.

Film boosters say the incentives need time to work, with each new movie expanding the base of skilled production workers.

The state pre-qualified "Hunter Killer," a big-budget submarine thriller, for the film incentive program early last year.

There have been few signs, publicly, that the movie is progressing toward production in Alaska. The director attached to the film, Antoine Fuqua, also directed the recently- released action blockbuster "Olympus Has Fallen."

"A lot of times productions will essentially go into a hibernation, for lack of a better word," Worrell said Tuesday. "At this point I am not aware of any direct activity (on "Hunter Killer.") But that is not uncommon because of scheduling of actors and directors. A lot of times productions will simply go on hold."

Robinson, of SprocketHeads, said the submarine film is still a possibility in Alaska, but said she couldn't speak in detail.

"It's absolutely still in play," she said.

"It's very disappointing and disheartening that we didn't have any (major) feature films in 2012, but I'm the eternal optimist and it looks like we're going to have feature films in 2013 and '14 and beyond," Robinson said.

If "Hunter Killer" moves forward in Alaska, it's unclear if Fuqua would direct. He told the Los Angeles Times last week that he's now preparing to shoot "The Equalizer" with his "Training Day" star, Denzel Washington.

"Sometimes things come together quickly, and I'll be shooting that in the next 11 weeks," Fuqua told the Times.

Among the bright spots for the local film industry is the small-budget feature "Wildlike," which was shot in Alaska last summer and will include scenes in Denali National Park, Schildt said.

"The film industry moves in fits and starts. When we have 'Frozen Ground' and when we have 'Wildlike' come out, there will probably be a little renewed interest and people coming to Alaska and applying," she said.

The state awarded "Frozen Ground" $6.3 million in subsidies in July. The producers reported paying $1.3 million to Alaska workers.

For now, Worrell said, he may be the only Alaskan who has seen an early cut of the Nicolas Cage serial killer drama. The film incentive rules require producers to show the state film office a version of the finished movie, he said.

Worrell wouldn't say if he thought the movie was any good.

"I'm not going to make any artistic judgments," he said.

 

 


By KYLE HOPKINS
khopkins@adn.com
Contact Kyle Hopkins at or on