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Donald Zuckerman - State's new film office chief is bullish on Colorado

by Richard J. Schneider

Donald Zuckerman wants to create 1,000 new jobs in Colorado, all of them permanent, all of them paying better than average, and all of them in the production industry. It's a lofty goal, but not unattainable, according to Colorado's new director of the Office of Film, Television & Media (OFTM).

He'd like to see Colorado once again become a player in the motion picture and television production industry, a position the state once held in the pre-incentive days when producers came to the state for its great locations, professional production crews, facilities, post houses, and readily available equipment. Colorado offered – and still does – a darn nice working environment.

For Zuckerman, film production isn't some passing fancy for some overpaid Hollywood studio mogul. It is serious, down to earth economic development, a vehicle for generating clean economic activity and creating top paying permanent jobs. And he would like to see the production industry take a more expansive role in the state's economic future. As an added bonus, he does know a bit about the motion picture industry.

Actually, he knows quite a lot about it. Zuckerman has produced a number of motion pictures, worked with some of Hollywood's top stars, and he comes across a solid businessman, not as some star-crossed hispster from the west coast. When he talks about how budgets and production projects are actually put together, he is speaking from direct experience.

Incentives are the key

But beautiful as Colorado is, varied as Denver's urban locations are, flat and desolate as some of our eastern and western localities can be, only a single word drives the film and television industry today:

Incentive. That is with a capital “I”.

Colorado does offer a production incentive: an anemic 10 per cent cash rebate on eligible production dollars spent within its borders. Better than nothing, but not by much.

Compared to production incentives offered by other states like New Mexico and Utah, it is more like a micro incentive program. Think massive industrial development loans granted by giant banks like JP Morgan-Chase versus micro loans of a few hundred bucks given to folks starting up a small weaving business in India. Colorado is in the “micro” arena.

Zuckerman, hired by Gov. John Hickenlooper to run the state's fledgling film office, is new to the state. He moved here with his family from Los Angeles to see what he could do to help a state that should be the location for many film and television productions, but is not.

He spent time here during the Democratic National Convention with the governor's late cousin, director George Hickenlooper, and a film crew following the then Mayor Hickenlooper around each day as he worked through the challenges of pulling off the tumultuous political event. The footage became “Hick Town,” a documentary he produced with George Hickenlooper, who died unexpectedly in Denver as he was premiering “Casino Jack,” the Kevin Spacey film about notorious Washington lobbyist Jack Abromoff. George directed. Zuckerman executive produced the motion picture.

“Casino Jack,” as Zuckerman likes to point out, takes place entirely in Washington, D.C. Yet, the entire film was shot in Canada, even scenes on the capitol's monuments, thanks to green screen technology. Here comes that word again:

Incentives. Canada has them. Colorado (really) does not.

Zuckerman is new to Colorado and new to the governor's office. And the governor is new to the governor's office. And new to the statehouse. And new to the state legislature, which has a habit of monkey wrenching just about any good idea if given half a chance.

So the film office director is doing his homework, working with the production industry and other businesses to develop a plan to enhance Colorado's film and television production incentive program. He knows it needs to be a part of Hickenlooper's overall economic initiatives. It has to have solid support from the governor's office, something that has not occurred in the past. Former Gov. Bill Ritter offered only lukewarm support for expanded incentives. Plus the state was reeling from the onset of the economic collapse.

Incentive details yet to come

Details of new incentive proposals are still under wraps and still under development. However, Zuckerman's take on the industry and incentives in general offer up a glimpse into how a new program might be shaped.

First, he said he is interested in independent films and projects with budgets ranging from, say, $5 million to $15 million. A dozen of those per year, he observed, would produce a solid foundation for ongoing economic development throughout the state as well as the needed propellent to launch a respectable number of permanent jobs in the industry.

Second, he doesn't want to see Colorado chasing the giant projects produced by Disney or other mega studios. If there is a cap on the production incentive, he said, “big studios take the whole thing. They create local jobs for a few months, then leave.” Under the best of conditions, industry observers expect Colorado to place an annual cap on whatever it offers as a production incentive.

Third, the multi-million dollar independent projects can adjust to changing conditions faster, probably an advantage in a state like Colorado. “Smaller films can turn quickly,” Zuckerman said. The giant productions are less flexible.

Fourth, he said an expanded incentive program needs to have broad support from both political parties in the legislature, from local governments across the state and from a range of industries that benefit directly and indirectly from film production. The latter includes the likes of production-related firms as well as airlines, hotels, resorts, restaurants, retail stores, car rental companies, and much more.

The tourism and business link

Zuckerman is big on tourism and its link with film and television production. He has seen first hand how the tourism industry benefits from motion pictures and TV shows. Another story he likes to tell centers on the recent film, “127 Hours.” It chronicles the life and death decision by trapped Colorado climber Aron Ralston who used a dull knife to amputate one of his arms to save his life.

Note: Ralston – Colorado climber. Film – shot in Moab, Utah. Incentives again.

Anyway, Zuckerman passes on the the anecdotal evidence from Moab tourism business interests, who reported that they almost knew where the film was playing in Europe by the accents of the travelers booking reservations in the Moab area.

“If there was a film called 'Sleepless in Denver,' we would benefit,” he said, suggesting that people actually travel to places they see in films and television programs.

In addition, Zuckerman notes that corporate executives also pay attention to what they see on the big and little screens. “A CEO sees Colorado, the lifestyle here, and he'll think about it as a possible office location,” he said, noting that recent surveys of corporate executives rank Colorado as the 5th best state to do business in.

The new film office chief said he was working with Colorado legislators to craft a proposal for the 2012 legislative session which cranks up next January. Those lawmakers, by the way, come from both sides of the political isle. In fact, the primary proponents of film incentive legislation in Colorado have been Republicans – chiefly State Rep. Tom Massey of Poncha Springs and State Sen. Nancy Spence of Centennial.

He also is building on the work done by the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business which has concluded that an expanded production incentive could generate more than $250 million in annual economic development and create more than 1,000 permanent high-paying jobs within five years.

That ain't hay, as they say up at the ranches in western Colorado.

CFVA and its members are on board

Zuckerman is not alone in his efforts to realign Colorado as a competitive location for film and television production. As it has in the past, the Colorado production community will have to step forward to help support this effort. It's been a long road, but more still needs to be done. Both the Colorado Film and Video Association and individual CFVA members are continuing to work toward these same goals.

Efforts are underway to build a broad business coalition to support the expanded incentive program, including the engagement of a lobbyist for the upcoming legislative session. In addition, CFVA plans to continue informing and educating its members on proposals coming from Zuckerman's office and on developments in the legislature.

CFVA State of the State: Sept. 21

“While there are exciting things happening, our state's film and video industry still needs to grow,” said CFVA board president Kevin Kerndt. He said the CFVA is sponsoring a “State of the State” panel discussion Wednesday, Sept. 21 from 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at The Denver Film Center, 2510 E. Colfax Avenue, in Denver.

“Our goal with this event is to acknowledge the industry's challenge,” Kerndt said, “and to explore, with a positive approach, ideas that will help revitalize Colorado's film and video industry.”

Zuckerman will be one of the panel members.

Kerndt encouraged CFVA members to attend, since the event will offer an excellent opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with the state's new OFTM director.

Denver writer Richard J. Schneider is a former CFVA board member and long-time corporate media producer. He contributes regularly to the CFVA E-Bulletin.