Film & TV

NANA to close filmmaking subsidiary Piksik

Piksik LLC, an Alaska film and commercial production company with five full-time employees, will close at the end of September.

Piksik President Robin Kornfield said the closure would also shutter Alaska House Media, a recent collaboration between Piksik and local NBC affiliate KTUU.

Created in 2011, Piksik is wholly owned by the Alaska Native regional corporation NANA. It joined forces with KTUU and its parent company Schurz Communications last February to form Alaska House Media, but the partnership never produced a feature film or television show.

Piksik said its business model relied on work brought to the state by the Alaska Film Production Tax Credit Program. The program offered tax credits to the film industry for work done in state. Productions could then sell the credits to other companies – offsetting the cost of shooting in Alaska.

Facing criticism from opponents who said the program mainly subsidized out-of-state workers -- at a time when legislators were facing a projected $3.5 billion deficit in the state budget -- the program was canceled by a bill that easily passed the Alaska Legislature and was signed by Gov. Bill Walker in June.

"The premise under which we formed the company is that Alaska would become a destination for producing full feature films," Kornfield said. "That's really the thing that will build an opportunity for people who are crew members, and for people with facilities and capabilities that support the industry."

Piksik worked on the feature film "The Frozen Ground," which was shot in Alaska in 2011, and filming and production for the Lifetime television show "Army Wives." Piksik's work in commercials -- including shoots for Samsung, Carhartt and Audi -- wasn't enough to keep the company operating, according to Kornfield.


"We are busy regrouping, breathing deeply and planning our futures over here."

Kornfield said Piksik will close at the end of September.

Film incentive fallout

Sprocketheads LLC, another local production company, said it had to reinvent itself after the loss of of the tax credit program. Executive producer Carolyn Robinson said she helped create the program and grew her business on the belief it would still be around. With the program in effect, Sprocketheads worked on the 2012 feature film "Big Miracle," which was loosely based on the 1988 rescue of three stranded whales near Barrow.

Sprocketheads also landed jobs for its employees in the submarine thriller "Hunter Killer." The movie, starring Gerard Butler, Billy Bob Thornton and Common, was planned to film in Whittier and would have been the biggest-budget production filmed in Alaska yet. But by then Gov. Bill Walker and some legislators were moving to eliminate the program and the production moved to Louisiana.

"One day I was a production supervisor on an $80 million movie with an A-list cast and an A-list director, and then, poof -- it's gone." Robinson said. "It felt like 15 years of my work was going down the drain."

Robinson said she has had to lay off six of her nine full-time employees. And while the company still shoots local and national commercials and corporate videos, Robinson said the loss of two-thirds of her staff is affecting the company.

"We are hiring the people that are left up here on a freelance basis and we actually have to bring some people up here from the Lower 48 for some of our shoots," Robinson said.

But the loss of the film tax credit program and the jobs it supported hasn't entirely killed off the local filmmaking industry. Current and former Piksik employees said they were staying busy with freelance work.

"Prior to my time in Alaska, I worked freelance for eight years in the feature and commercial film industry in Los Angeles," said Deborah Schildt, a former Piksik production manager. "I can assure you that change in the film business is a daily occurrence and adaptability is how we survive."

Schildt believes there will still be a lot of freelance work in Alaska, despite the loss of the tax credit program. And Schildt said she and others are working to create a new program to help boost the Alaska film industry.

Randy Daly, president of the Alaska Film Group -- a nonprofit trade organization -- said that when lawmakers get back to Juneau in January, they will see a pair of bills, SB108 and HB194, that would allow Alaskans or the state to invest up to $1 million directly into film projects -- a kind of financing they can't do now.

"I don't know if tax credits are going to be the cause du jour in the future," Daly said. "I think we are probably going to have to come up with some other way to do it."

But without that financial incentive for movie productions to shoot in Alaska, local production crews, videographers and other industry workers are leaving the state.

Robinson said she's considering what the future for Sprocketheads will be in Alaska. The company's main cinematographer, Steven Rychetnik, is sought after for film work in the Lower 48.

As for Piksik, Kornfield said NANA would retain the rights to the name ("piksik" is an Inupiaq word meaning to jump up and respond quickly), but the company's mission to capitalize on the jobs and revenue created by the film industry in Alaska is over.

"We were a startup corporation for NANA, and there is only so long a company will wait for a startup to take off," Kornfield said.

Sean Doogan

Sean Doogan is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.