Archive for Sunday, May 2, 2004

Lights, camera, Kansas

State lawmakers eye film industry for revenue

May 2, 2004


The Lawrence business community may want to pay special attention to movie reviews in late January 2005.

That's when Lawrence filmmaker and Kansas University assistant professor Kevin Willmott's movie, "CSA: The Confederate States of America," is due to hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

Members of the state's film community say its success, or failure, likely will play a major role in attracting other lucrative film projects to Kansas.

"There's a lot of interest right now in bringing the film industry to Kansas, and a lot of it is driven by the activities going on with professor Willmott," said Jerry Lonergan, president of Kansas Inc., a Topeka-based economic think-tank that recently completed a report for the Kansas Legislature on the economic development potential of the movie industry.

Lonergan's report found that crews spend from $85,000 to $100,000 per day in the communities where they're filming. It also told of success stories, like North Carolina, which went from virtually no film presence to more than $500 million a year in the early 1990s.

Austin, Texas, also was cited as an example of how a university community could prosper in the business. Films have pumped $450 million into the Austin economy since 1993. For comparison purposes, the entire state of Kansas receives film revenues of about $10 million a year.

Lawmakers have taken notice of the industry's potential. Kansas lawmakers created a special subcommittee called Lights, Camera, Action that has received two proposals for using millions of state dollars to lure more films, including one that would build a $300 million production studio in the Lawrence or Kansas City area.

Rising reputation

Lawrence is expected to play a starring role in any success the film industry has in the state. KU's department of theater and film has about 400 students and a growing reputation.

Willmott is a large reason why. His movie -- which tells a story of how life would be if the Confederacy won the Civil War -- has created a buzz in the industry. The low-budget, independent film was among a handful selected to be shown at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, which is a showcase of independent films founded by Hollywood icon Robert Redford.

"I'm very enthusiastic about the prospect of Lawrence becoming a player in the industry," said Chuck Berg, the incoming director of KU's theater and film department. "Kevin's film could be huge for us. It is the singular event that has stirred a lot of interest."

Lonergan said the hope was that Willmott's film would receive critical acclaim, be shown in theaters across the country and spread the word to other filmmakers that it was almost entirely shot in the Lawrence area.

"A lot of the thinking is that you have a very creative person who is in the process of acquiring a national reputation," Lonergan said. "People believe he might have the ability to attract other filmmakers to the area."

Ideas emerge

The plan sounds fine to Willmott. He's not promising his movie will be the one that puts the state on the path to Tinseltown, but he does believe Kansas has an opportunity to become a movie magnet.

Here's a look at notable feature films and made-for-television movies that were at least partially filmed in the state, according to the Kansas Film Commission.Feature films:¢ "About Schmidt," 2001.¢ "Ride With the Devil," 1999.¢ "Kansas City," 1996.¢ "Mars Attacks!" 1996.¢ "Kansas," 1988.¢ "Bad Company," 1972.¢ "In Cold Blood," 1967.¢ "Carnival of Souls," 1962.¢ "Picnic," 1956.Made-for-television:¢ "Sarah Plain & Tall" series, 1999, 1992, 1990.¢ "Where Pigeons Go to Die," 1989.¢ "Murder Ordained," 1986.¢ "The Day After," 1983.

"I don't think it will ever be easy because in the places where this has happened, it hasn't happened overnight," Willmott said. "But I think we have a very good chance to do it because we're attracting more interest all the time."

Legislators have noticed the increased interest. Two groups have submitted proposals to lawmakers during the current session. The first is a plan by Kansas Connection Inc., a Hollywood-based group made up primarily of former Kansas residents in the film industry.

The group is proposing the state make a $25 million investment over four years. The money would be used to fund approximately 12 independent films, each with a budget of about $2 million, that would be shot in Kansas. The state would retain the rights to 50 percent of any of the profits from the films. State officials would select which films to fund.

The second plan is proposed by New York financier Basem Zakariya and Kansas City, Mo., advertising executive Larry Garrett. The two are proposing a $300 million production studio that would be built at an undetermined site along Interstate 70 between Lawrence and Johnson County.

The pair envision the studio attracting nearly 1.5 million tourists a year who would pay to watch movies being filmed at the facility. The current proposal calls for the state to issue STAR bonds for the facility, which would allow sales taxes generated by the studio to pay for its construction.

The two also are asking the state to become an investor in the approximately five movies per year that would be filmed at the studio. Garrett said the proposal called for the state to fund 35 percent of the cost of each movie, if other investors can't be found. Each movie is expected to have a budget from $5 million to $10 million.

Garrett said the combination of a world-class studio and a financial incentive from the state was what's needed to enhance the state's movie-making image.

"It would make Kansas more competitive than most other places in the United States," Garrett said. "It would even make it competitive with Canada, which is key because that's where a lot of films are going for cost reasons."

Good money

Expecting state legislators to fund movie-making activities when they're struggling to find funding for education and other issues may be unrealistic.

But Rep. Lana Gordon, chairwoman of the Legislature's Lights, Camera, Action subcommittee, isn't giving up on the idea.

"I think anything is possible," said Gordon, a Topeka Republican. "We have done some pretty creative things for economic development and that's what this is about."

She hopes to create an interim legislative committee that will study the two proposals and any others during the summer. Then the Legislature should be ready for a full debate in 2005, if necessary.

Judy Billings, director of the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau, has seen firsthand the effects a movie can have on a community.

She was involved in attracting "The Day After," a 1983 made-for-television movie that was shot in Lawrence.

"Film companies spend a lot of money in a really short period of time," Billings said. "It is very good for a community's economy."

Hotels and restaurants who feed and house the crews are typically big winners. But Billings said the film could benefit other businesses such as landscapers, furniture rental stores, construction companies and florists.

"I have seen film companies spend $1,000 on flowers for just one little scene," Billings said.

Garrett also is promoting the promise of new jobs for the state. He said his studio proposal would create 1,500 construction jobs and about 2,500 full-time jobs once it opened.

Lonergan also said the state could receive some intangible benefits.

"This would be an industry that attracts young people to the state, and I know that is something lawmakers want to do," Lonergan said. "Plus, this is an industry that creates excitement. Sometimes excitement spreads, and that could be good for other parts of the economy."

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