Twilight. Sonic the Hedgehog 2. The Killing. All are films or TV series set in Washington but shot out of state because our film incentives fucking suck. Or, they did suck. After years of advocacy, Washington's film industry is about to get a lot more competitive.
Today, the Washington State Senate and House passed a bill that will majorly update and expand the state's Motion Picture Competitiveness Program (MPCP), an initiative to attract more film productions to our sexy state. The bill increases the program's funding cap from $3.5 million—among the worst incentives offered by a state in the country—to $15 million per year. It also directs more money toward projects in rural areas and marginalized communities, and it increases the individual tax credit that a film can receive from $750,000 to $1 million. The bill passed with bipartisan support in both chambers.
“I’ve been practicing my Academy Award-winning speech for this bill all day,” said bill sponsor Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane) on the floor this evening just before it was approved. “The other chamber gave it a bit of a haircut, the incentive was reduced a bit, but this is great for our creative community.”
Amy Lillard, the executive director of Washington Filmworks, the nonprofit that stewards the state's MPCP, called the bill "a dream come true. [It] gives Washington Filmworks the legislative authority to do great work."
The bill shifted during its journey through the chambers, the major shift being how much more money to give to the program. The initial measure introduced by Riccelli and approved by the House could have raised the MPCP's funding cap from $3.5 million to $20 million annually. But an amendment tacked on by Sen. June Robinson (D-Everett) lowered that cap to $15 million.
Though the bill didn't get as much money as lawmakers initially asked for, it marks a huge step forward for the state's film industry. Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-Mercer Island), who sponsored the Senate version of the measure, wrote to The Stranger that "we're walking away providing more jobs and more opportunities to grow the creative economy in Washington."
This session is the tenth time legislators have advocated for an increase to the film incentive cap, as nearby states like Oregon and Montana have upped their incentives substantially, to $20 million and $12 million respectively. No state can compete with Vancouver, B.C., where there is no cap, but at $15 million, Washington's program can now support and attract many more productions.
"I've seen this happen before where something is kicking around [the state Legislature] for a long time and then finally the time is sort of right," Sen. David Frockt (D-North Seattle), who also sponsored the bill in the Senate, said on the phone recently. "I think it just became so apparent that all these other states have incentives that are putting us in a really difficult position to compete."
Washington's business and occupation tax funds the MPCP, which the state created in 2006 and renewed in 2017 through 2027. (This bill extends it to 2030.) Overseen by Washington Filmworks, the program's main gist is it offers funding assistance—i.e. tax breaks, rebates, and grants—to qualifying film and episodic series productions that spend a certain amount of money in-state. For example, films and series with fewer than six episodes need to spend at least $500,000 in-state to qualify for assistance. Episodic productions with six or more episodes must spend at least $300,000 in-state.
Today's passed version of the bill outlines more targeted investments in rural counties (in this case, "rural" is defined as counties with a population density between 60 and 100 people per square mile) and marginalized communities. It also gives these productions a “10 percent enhancement award” on their state investment.
"I believe rural locations offer a relaxed atmosphere, a certain privacy, and even an intimacy that nurtures creative expression," wrote Sherrye Wyatt, who works as a film liaison for Filmworks and in marketing for Whidbey and Camano Islands. Those islands have hosted a number of productions, like War of the Roses, Double Jeopardy, An Officer and a Gentleman, and most recently the Top Gun sequel Maverick.
Proponents of the MPCP often say these productions have a significant impact on small businesses and tourism in rural areas, with productions not only hiring local actors and crew but spending on goods and services. Wyatt wrote that the production of Midday Black, Midnight Blue spent 18.5% of their total budget in Island County last year. And fans of the 1998 film Practical Magic flock to Coupeville on Whidbey every year to check out the small town where the movie was shot.
The bill's supporters say that by adding $11.5 million more to the program's pot, the benefits are clear: more productions mean more opportunities for work.
“We have an extraordinary pool of talent,” said Nike Imoru, a Spokane-based casting director and producer who casts local talent for TV and feature films. Imoru's spent 16 years working in the film industry in Washington and says the casting pool spans the state. It "literally goes from east to west. ... That’s why I’m so passionate and have been for a very long time about bringing work here because I know that we have the talent to populate the projects that are here."
Imoru said increasing the state's MPCP "allows us to build an industry here, it allows us to stay at home, and allows us to have generations of filmmakers," she said. "It means we can actually start to build a cohesive community that becomes multi-generational."
The bill now waits for Gov. Inslee's signature.