The state legislature is currently in crisis as lawmakers try to make sure vital resources like public education get the funding they need. If they don't reach a budget agreement by June 30, the state government will partially shut down, causing layoffs and closure of some state agencies. In the midst of this chaos, a bill to renew the small-scale (but economically and artistically important) Motion Picture Competitiveness Program will probably expire quietly at the end of June. In these contentious and long-delayed negotiations, can the state legislature find $3.5 million to help sustain the local film industry, bring jobs and money to Washington State, and keep our creative communities alive?
This program is the reason we have a state film office and any film tax incentive at all, and it needs to continue to exist because of the way that the film industry works. The states and countries with the deepest pockets and the most generous incentives get the projects. Washington offers gorgeous and widely varied geography, from deserts to dramatic mountains to rainforests. Seattle's skyline, greenery, and blue/gray light entice filmmakers. But barely any movies set in Seattle are actually filmed here.
Rob Meyer's new dramedy Little Boxes is about a family that moves from Brooklyn to a small town in Washington. In an interview with No Film School, Meyer said that he filmed the Pacific Northwest scenes in New York. "In my ideal world, we would have filmed in Washington, but the budget just wouldn't stretch to that. And the film credit is great in New York, so we wanted to take advantage of that."
Despite the fact that our modest program has to compete with states that offer millions in tax credits each year, Washington has successfully produced a number of nationally recognized filmmakers. I spoke to Amy Lillard, executive director of Washington Filmworks the organization that houses the state film office and is responsible for overseeing the way the incentives are doled out. She wondered what our filmmaking community might look like if this program doesn't get renewed.
"People are going to move away. I look at people like Lynn Shelton and Megan Griffiths and Lacey Leavitt and Mel Eslyn—in some ways, Filmworks partnered with them to launch these careers. We helped fund the projects that put them on the national filmmaking map. If we don't have the program, that's not going to happen. They're going to go somewhere else and make their movies. As Hollywood grapples with trying to figure out how to get more women in film, we are (in Seattle specifically) a film industry led by women. And in some ways, Filmworks gets to say, 'We're a part of that.' That's something to be proud of and it's something that should continue."
The program as it stands now is also a model for spending accountability. Projects must prove exactly how they contributed to our state's economy—and only then do they receive their payout. Lillard said: "It's all local. It's all about here. It's all about Washington."
Legislators on both sides of the political aisle agree. The Motion Picture Competitiveness Program has a number of supporters from all over the state. I spoke with state representative Nicole Macri from the 43rd District (which encompasses much of Seattle). She's a sponsor of the bill and a vocal supporter of its economic and cultural impact.
Macri told me: "It's one of the best performing incentive programs in the country, because we live out a lot of our values in how it's structured. It's a reimbursement model. It's an after-the-fact structure. I don't think there's any question about that." Then she added, "But is this going to make the cut compared to all the other things the legislature has to do this year?"
Hopefully, lawmakers will find time in their high-pressure negotiations to save our local film industry.