Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, February 20, 2005

State must invest in own filmmakers, studios

By Chris Lee

MOORE PARK, Australia — Aloha from Down Under, where I'm producing Warner Brothers' "Superman Returns," starring Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, and newcomer Brandon Routh as the Man of Steel.

Many people have asked me why this most American of heroes is having his latest movie made in Australia. The simple answer is economics.

We're shooting at the Fox Studios Sydney (built with government incentives), the same lot used for the recent Star Wars films and the Matrix Trilogy. Warner Brothers' decision is based on the favorable exchange rate, the Australian government's 12.5 percent rebate on all production expenditures (no cap), and a broad infrastructure of crews, equipment and ample stage space (we're using all seven stages on this lot, each of them at least twice the size of Hawai'i's Diamond Head facility).

In short, we're here because the Australian government has made it very attractive for big budget Hollywood movies to spend a great deal of money in their country. Which brings me to our state's current debate over tax credits and incentives for films and TV shows.

Obviously, I support these efforts. Without a substantial legislative commitment to one of our few economic alternatives to the visitor industry, Hawai'i will never compete for the kind of individual productions that spend on one film what a record year of production now brings to Hawai'i.

At the same time, however, I don't believe legislative solutions should be arrived at out of panic over the loss of any particular production and without clear-cut goals that are equally beneficial to Hollywood shows and our indigenous filmmakers.

Without a strong local community of writers, directors, producers and crafts people, Hawai'i will always be caught in the feast-or-famine cycle of serving as mere vendors beholden to the creative and financial whims of the studios and networks.

It's not a question of whether Hawai'i should have production incentives. Every state and virtually every country courts the film industry through tax breaks.

There's actually a billboard on Sunset Boulevard that says, "Hey Tarantino, we'll help you Kill Bill or Bob or anyone else if you shoot your movie in Pennsylvania, and we'll give you a 20-percent tax credit for doing it!"

The question is: What is the specific goal of Hawai'i's production credits? In New Mexico, which offers production loans of up to $7.5 million and tax credits up to 15 percent, the lack of crews led to the requirement of a Workforce Training and Mentorship program for on-the-job training.

In New York, which has plenty of crews but an underutilized infrastructure, their latest $150 million tax-credit package requires the use of New York sound stages. In Louisiana, where producers can get from 15 to 20 percent in tax credits, an active studio and the Governor's Office of Film & Television Development are part of the University of New Orleans.

Hawai'i, unique among any location I know of, ties its incentives to the tourism industry (you get more money back if you use the word Hawai'i in your title) and to unrelated but sellable tax credits rather than benefiting our own filmmaking community. There are quantifiable rewards to Hollywood and local corporations looking to lower their state tax bills, but no specific returns for our own industry to make us less dependent on "foreign" productions.

This has led to some unfortunate choices in the past that have financially favored a few insiders, done little to build our local infrastructure or support indigenous filmmakers, befuddled and confused Hollywood as to how exactly Hawai'i wants to attract production to our shores, and, most importantly to my mind, left a very sour taste among local people regarding the value of what should be a vital driver for our future by keeping our talented students home with well-paying, satisfying jobs.

Instead, overburdened local taxpayers are wary of "Hollywood rip-offs" and, based on past experience, rightly so.

Consider, on the other hand, New Zealand, another island community based in an indigenous culture with a similarly rich tradition of storytelling through song, dance and chant. New Zealand's support for its own filmmakers led to movies such as "Once Were Warriors," "Utu," and "Whale Rider."

But it also supported the career of local director Peter Jackson, who convinced New Line to spend more than $300 million making the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy there, which was followed by the hundred-million-dollar-plus productions of "The Last Samurai," "Narnia" and "King Kong." Hollywood moved to New Zealand because a New Zealander insisted they work there.

It's time for Hawai'i to think globally but act locally — and for us to believe in ourselves. We can accomplish this by:

• Passing a competitive tax-credit program in the 15- to 20-percent range that can be accessed by local low-budget productions as well as by Hollywood, but peg the level of incentives to building up our local infrastructure, both professional and educational.

• Utilize existing and future Act 221/215 deals and tax breaks to invest in our kids by mandating educational support for innovative programs throughout the Department of Education, like Wai'anae High School's Searider Productions and the University of Hawai'i's system-wide Academy for Creative Media (disclaimer: The author is the chairman of the academy).

We have islands full of camcorder-ready, computer-savvy, visually gifted, storytelling keiki ready to become the next Steven Spielberg with the right instruction.

• Limit future Act 221/215 deals to locally based production companies with payrolls, real estate and actual ongoing business plans — not "one-offs" with post-office box addresses.

• Encourage construction of a real, privately owned studio in West O'ahu where there's sufficient space for stages and the possibility of the only "infinity" tank in America (now they exist in Mexico and Malta and are always in use).

• Fund the state's Film and Television Development Board, which is charged with supporting local filmmakers but has never actually had any money to disburse.

I'm as weary as everyone else of shows that purport to be set in Hawai'i but bear little resemblance to our Island home or the people who live here. The only cure for this is enabling local writers, directors and producers to create parts for local actors filmed by local crews.

• Increase the amount of money the Hawai'i Tourism Authority spends on indigenous filmmakers from something between the $100,000 given out last year and the millions spent annually on sports programming. Original productions are the best way to tell our own stories and entice future visitors to experience the real Hawai'i.

• Expand the concept of production to include video games, digital animation, postproduction and visual effects — that's where the real money is these days. Right now, I'm hoping to send some of the special-effects business on "Superman Returns" to Hawai'i-based companies.

Remember, computers and the Internet make this a global, highly outsourced business — one that's well suited to Hawai'i's beautiful but fragile environment and the natural talents of our students. Computer technology allows stories made in Hawai'i to be set anywhere on Earth or wherever your imagination takes you.

Even to Krypton.

All facts and figures in this article were taken from Issue No. 6, 2004, of Emmy magazine.

Chris Lee is on leave from the University of Hawai'i Academy for Creative Media and is sponsoring four UH students as the exclusive production interns on "Superman Returns." He wrote this article for The Advertiser.