Brewing Milwaukee Movie Magic
New incentives aim to position Wisconsin as Hollywood’s next super-hot location.
It has all the makings of boffo box office. Wisconsin is hoping to have a blockbuster on its hands when it makes its world premiere Jan. 1, 2008. That’s when the state’s new film incentives, intended to carve out a piece of the $60 billion U.S. film economy, take effect.
The incentives, which proponents say will make Wisconsin a player in the movie-making industry, will provide a 25 percent state tax break on production costs, among other enticements, and hopefully woo the lucrative movie, television and video gaming industry to the Badger State.
Wisconsin officials hope to replicate the success of states like Louisiana, which also offers a 25 percent tax break and has seen its film economy soar from virtually nothing to a $500 million business in just a few years.
“Runaway productions” is the term the Hollywood film industry has used to describe the billions of dollars of film industry money that has left Tinseltown for more cost-effective locations.
The team most responsible for making Wisconsin a future player in the worldwide film economy includes a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers, led by Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and State Sen. Ted Kanavas.
Lawton, a longtime champion of building Wisconsin’s creative economy, says the film industry represents the next generation in the state’s evolution from a more traditional manufacturing base to the clean, green production of film and video-based products.
“There’s a tremendous public value in developing creative industry clusters,” she says. “Creative industries allow us to retool our manufacturing capabilities for the 21st century, and at the same time work to improve and re-image our state as a hotbed of creativity and talent.”
Film, adds Lawton, will “showcase to the world the wonderful attributes of Wisconsin, with its four seasons and rich inventory of sites, Great Lakes and inland waterways. We really have it all.”
In addition to bringing significant new economic impact to the state, Kanavas, the bill’s lead sponsor, says the industry has the potential to bring in a much-needed “cool factor.”
The supporters of this grassroots effort are George Tzougros, executive director of the Wisconsin Arts Board, and Scott Robbe, a film and television industry veteran. The two, along with a core group of volunteers, formed Film Wisconsin in 2005, which is now the official film office for the state. It is this group that pushed for passage of the incentive legislation.
Robbe is the first executive director of Film Wisconsin. He left a successful entertainment career in New York City to return to his native land and be a part of building a new industry from the ground up.
“There’s no question that filmmakers, most based on the East and West coasts, are looking for new film locations,” Robbe says. “Wisconsin will soon be ready for its close-up. Since the buzz was generated about our incentives, we have received more than 100 inquiries from companies representing about $100 million in production work. We have no doubt that this industry will create new jobs and have a positive economic impact on Wisconsin.”
That sentiment is shared by Alan J. Bailey, senior vice president and treasurer of Paramount Pictures, and one of the original architects of the Wisconsin legislation.
In a letter to the film office, he writes, “Wisconsin could clearly become a major player with the very attractive financial package offered and sufficient, in my opinion, for studios to make whatever script changes may be necessary to make film and television projects fit within the diverse cityscape and countryside available in your beautiful state.”
Other Wisconsin natives who have made their mark in the entertainment industry, including actors Bradley Whitford, Jane Kaczmarek and Tony Shalhoub and screenwriter David Koepp. Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker (creators of Airplane! and The Naked Gun movies) have also officially supported this effort.
The passage of the film legislation is just the beginning. While there continues to be an ongoing effort to move up the effective date of the incentives in order to accommodate several productions that have expressed an interest in bringing projects to Wisconsin in 2007, Robbe and Film Wisconsin continue to gear up for the Jan. 1, 2008 start date.
This Oscar-worthy drama is still being played out, but film fans from around Wisconsin are counting on a Hollywood happy ending.
During the Golden Age of Hollywood, MGM Studios, which in its prime cranked out more than 50 feature films a year, was dubbed the “Dream Factory.” A mammoth campus in Culver City, Calif., MGM provided a creative home for thousands of artists.
Some private investors and local filmmakers hope to bring a little bit of that dream to Milwaukee, with the recent opening of Chain Reaction Studios, tucked into the quiet residential neighborhood of St. Francis.
The complex is the first full-service studio in the state and will include five sound stages, editing suites, production offices and everything else film producers need.
The buildings are owned by developer Darrick Dysland, who was eager to transform the closed manufacturing facilities into high-tech film production space. RD Images, a commercial photography studio owned by Tom Davenport and Janine Sijan Rozina, is also an investor in the venture.
Lightning Rod Studios, one of the state’s most active production companies, is owned by Dan Kattman—a local entertainment attorney—and director Drew Maxwell. The company plans to move into the complex when finished.
“The studio was only a vision until the film incentives became a reality,” Kattman says. “The incentives will give producers the tools they need to do their work.”