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Mark Biggs is determined to raise the film tax credit cap to $30 million.
Mark Biggs is determined to raise the film tax credit cap to $30 million.

Tax credit proponents look to bring films to the Ozarks

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An independent film shot in Taney and Christian counties earlier this year pumped an estimated $800,000 into the Springfield-Branson area, and the New Yorkers behind the low-budget flick say Missouri's film production tax credits were vital to the project.

Most of "Winter's Bone," which is based on a 2006 novel of the same name by West Plains author Daniel Woodrell, was filmed in and around Forsyth, the hilltop Taney County seat that overlooks Taneycomo and Bull Shoals lakes. The movie, written and directed by Debra Granik, is about an Ozarks teen whose methamphetamine-cooking father has jumped bail on a bond collateralized by the family's home.

Production personnel opened an office in Branson in December and spent about three months there, with the majority of filming occurring between mid-February and mid-March. At its peak, the crew occupied nearly 90 rooms in the Hilton Convention Center Hotel at Branson Landing, where they routinely dined and gathered for drinks. Waxy O'Shea's Irish Pub was a favorite, said producer Anne Rossellini.

"Thank God for Branson," Rossellini said in a phone interview from New York. "Our crew was so happy. So many people who had been on huge-budget films said that those were the best accommodations they've ever had on any shoot. ... You couldn't have asked for a better scenario for an away-shoot. We're all from New York. We're spoiled. We're used to having things at our fingertips."

Rossellini and Granik are now editing "Winter's Bone," and the duo hope to premiere the movie - if accepted - at the Sundance Film Festival early next year.

Proponents of Missouri's film production tax credits are pushing to expand the program to attract more filmmakers to the Show-Me State, which faces stiff competition from other states and countries. Some 46 states now offer incentives in the form of tax credits, rebates or refunds, and Louisiana and New Mexico are among those that have watched filmmakers flock to their locales thanks to uncapped incentives.

"New Mexico and Louisiana created an industry where none existed," said Bill Lennon, a Branson-based producer who assisted the "Winter's Bone" crew. "We're losing business; we should be creating jobs right now. ... We're at a cusp."

Challenges abound

Missouri issues transferable tax credits to filmmakers for 35 percent of qualified expenditures during the shooting of a film, TV show or commercial. While the percentage is viewed as relatively competitive, the 10-year-old program's $4.5 million annual cap isn't.

In 2008, Missouri raised the program's annual cap to $4.5 million from $1.5 million and lowered the minimum in-state expenditure on films at least 30 minutes long to $100,000 from $300,000, said Mark Biggs, a Missouri State University professor who chairs the Missouri Film Commission.

The commission, a division of the state Department of Economic Development created in 1983 to promote the growth of the film and video-production industry in Missouri, oversees the tax credit process and reviews expenditures submitted by filmmakers.

Earlier this year, state Rep. Jason Grill, D-Kansas City, introduced House Bill 767 that would have increased the annual cap to $10 million, which still pales in comparison to other states. Alaska recently boosted its annual cap to $100 million, and Pennsylvania's cap is now $75 million.

Grill's bill gained little traction in the 2009 legislative session, which was overshadowed by a group of Republican senators who declared open season on Missouri's various tax credits programs.

"Tax credits are a dirty word right now," Lennon said.

"But I think the film tax credits are the example of good and appropriate tax credits. They are bringing in business that would not come otherwise."

Biggs is determined to raise the program's annual cap to a more competitive $30 million. He said most independent film budgets range between $2 million and $4 million, and big-studio films typically cost tens of millions of dollars to produce.

Biggs estimated that the budget for Paramount Pictures' "Up in the Air," a comedy starring George Clooney that filmed in St. Louis earlier this year, is more than $20 million. The film, which is about a businessman intent on racking up a million frequent-flier miles, will single-handedly max out Missouri's film production tax credits for fiscal 2009, said Missouri Film Commission Director Jerry Jones.

Jones said "Winter's Bone" is expected to submit about $800,000 in qualified expenditures, meaning they would receive about $280,000 in state tax credits. Those credits can then be sold for about 90 cents on the dollar, meaning the filmmakers could potentially recoup about $250,000.

"That's huge," Rossellini said. "That's going to help fund our postproduction. I do feel that Missouri ... is pretty competitive with other states in terms of what they offer. ... The only area of improvement would be if you could get your local government to up the ante (so there's) more money to play with."

Whether the filming of "Winter's Bone" generated more tax revenue than it will receive in the form of credits remains unknown.

Numbers game

Quantifying the direct and indirect economic impacts of "Winter's Bone" and "Up in the Air" on the Springfield-Branson and St. Louis regions is the next order of business for Jones and Biggs, who are working in conjunction with the Missouri Motion Media Association.

Calculating the direct impact is simple, Jones said, noting that filmmakers must provide receipts and invoices of their expenditures before tax credits are issued. During the filming of the 2005 movie "The Game of Their Lives" in St. Louis, the crew conducted business with 150 vendors, including rental car chains, florists, pet sitters, dry cleaners and hardware stores, Jones said.

"Winter's Bone is no different," he added.

Attaching a dollar figure to the indirect economic impact is trickier, and states have used multipliers ranging from 1.5 to three times the direct expenditures, Jones said.

Missouri Economic Development spokesman John Fougere said the department uses a formula that calculates three levels of spending: direct, indirect and induced.

DED estimates that "Winter's Bone" and "Up in the Air" combined for a $40 million economic impact: $15 million in direct spending - gleaned from tax creditapplications submitted by filmmakers -and $25 million in indirect and induced spending. The formula does not take into account tourism dollars connected to the movies.

A report released earlier this year, however, concluded that few states offering film production tax credits have been able to demonstrate long-term benefits of the breaks. The report was co-authored by Susan Christopherson, a city and regional planning professor at Cornell University, and Ned Rightor, a Massachusetts employment expert.

"The indirect impact of expenditures made in conjunction with subsidized film and television productions cannot be gauged accurately without public access to information on the budgets, actual expenditures and the labor force ... of subsidized productions over a period of years," the co-authors wrote.

"In the absence of such information, we are left with a continuous battle between reports based on wildly different assumptions."

Regardless of whether Missouri expands its film production tax credits, the "Winter's Bone" filmmakers may very well return to the Ozarks for future projects, said Sarah Kessinger, vice president of the Missouri Film Alliance of Springfield.

"The producer and director love this area," said Kessinger, who served as production coordinator for the indie film. "They have two other ideas. They would love to come back here and shoot, and they're in New York right now singing the praises of the crew and the people and the heart of southwest Missouri."[[In-content Ad]]

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