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Hey! The incentive thing is working.

Donal Zuckerman
By Richard J. Schneider

Anyway you cut it, the state’s new and expanded production incentive is working.

Have soundstages popped up on every corner? Is Brad Pitt moving to Denver to set up shop for his next four films? Is the statehouse being renamed Sony Pictures Capitol Building at Mile High?

Well, no.

Are there more hurdles to jump, challenges to overcome?

Well, yes.

But there are solid signs that Colorado lawmakers made the right decision last year when they finally voted to double its incentive for producing film, television, commercials, video games, and still shoots – or, can we just say media production? Lawmakers bumped the financial incentive from 10 per cent to 20 per cent of budgets spent in Colorado.

According to film commissioner Donald Zuckerman, there are several key indicators that Colorado is on the right track:

  • In the first third of the current fiscal year, the state has incentivized three times what it did in the entire previous year.
  • Commercial producers are bringing more business to Colorado, some directly because of the incentive.
  • Several independent feature film projects are “circling” the state, not to pick apart its near-dead carcass, but to actually land and produce here.
  • Major studios have dug through their trash to find Colorado’s old Rolodex card and are now calling the state to talk about production.

The Money is Flowing

“In all of FY 2011 and 2012, which ended June 30, our verified production spend was about a million-four,” Zuckerman said in a recent interview. “So far in the first four months of this year, our incentivized production spend is 4.2 million dollars. So, in the first third of the year, we have incentivized three times as much production than all of last year.”

He said five companies are “sharing” that initial production spend, including a High Noon Entertainment cable series, a Rocky Mountain PBS documentary series, and a three-pack of Coors beer commercials.

New Local Productions

“On a positive side, High Noon is doing a show called the Prospectors,” Zuckerman said. The series, being produced for the Weather Channel, follows miners as they risk life and limb, endure extreme climates, and clamber through the high country in search of valuable rare gems. “It’s a million-eight for nine episodes. It's all being filmed in the mountains, in areas that don't see a lot of incentive money, and they're spending money there.”

Rocky Mountain PBS has been “energized by the incentive to try to do more original programming here in Colorado, which not only employs people, but I think it's good for the image of the state,” he said. The local public television outlet has a documentary series in the works, aided by state incentives.

Several feature film producers have told the commissioner they have plans to shoot in Colorado. One company produces films in the $6 million range, the other around $1.3 million, but it was too early to disclose the names of the companies, since incentive applications have not been filed, he said. As an executive producer himself, the commissioner knows how tenuous film deals can be until the papers are signed. He said the $6 million company “point blank told me they are coming here, but sometimes people say that and they don’t.”

Commercial Bread and Butter

"Coors has been shooting their commercials outside the state,” Zuckerman said. “They show the Rockies and you watch them and you think they're in the state, but the last one was shot in the Cascade Mountains in Washington. Now they're shooting here, and I think that’s a good thing.”

In a way, Coors, which used to shoot quite a bit in Colorado, is coming home. “Sponsors are aware of the incentive … that’s why Coors decided to come here,” Zuckerman said.

Industry insiders confirmed that the three-commercial Coors package, which was shot in Telluride just before Thanksgiving, will garner around $60,000 in incentives, indicating a local production spend of $300,000 or more.

The uptick in commercial production, which producers consider critical bread and butter business for the local industry, does not appear to be a short-term trend either.

“I had a meeting when I was in LA a couple of weeks ago with a major company that reps major advertisers and they told me they will definitely bring high budget commercials to Colorado because of the incentive,” Zuckerman said. “They feel like this is a great place to shoot. There are a lot of great visuals that haven't been seen. And they were just waiting for something like the incentive to happen.”

Back on the Map

With our previous 10 per cent cash rebate, the larger production companies have basically viewed Colorado – despite its fabulous range of diverse and stunning locations – as a place to change planes. It has taken a little while since the incentive was doubled, but the word is getting out: Colorado is open for business. The new 20 per cent incentive has put the state back on the map, according to the film commissioner.

He said the overall response to the incentive has been “pretty positive,” and that his office is now getting calls from major studios like Sony and Paramount. Still, Zuckerman’s primary goal is to bring features to Colorado. Zuckerman said he was “confident” the state is going to get several major commercials “and, hopefully, a couple of movies.”

A Few Concerns

Despite these early indicators that the expanded incentive is clearly increasing economic activity in Colorado, there are two major mountains the local industry still must conquer – one a political challenge and the other a public relations task.

The political challenge revolves around the kind of problem we all hope for: too much business.

As word of the new incentive permeates the industry, the limited availability of incentive funds puts the brakes on a number of projects – primarily the big ones. The limit is in the form of the effective cap the traditionally conservative Colorado State Legislature has placed on the total incentive payout.

Lawmakers must appropriate a set amount each fiscal year; the incentive is not open-ended. The current appropriation is $3 million, which would incentivize a local production spend of $15 million. That cap alone rules out a Hollywood blockbuster that might spend $50 million in Colorado, since the production company would be looking for a $10 million incentive, more than three times the current annual appropriation.

But Zuckerman knows the state has to walk before it can run, and even though Colorado has doubled its incentive to 20 per cent, the Office of Film, Television and Media (OFTM) has to show the legislature it can incentivize enough production business to commit the full $3 million, and then roll out a backlog of projects that might have produced in the state had more incentive funds been available. This is a tall order, but it is the challenge that Zuckerman has taken on.

CFVA members can play a key role in keeping their local legislators up to speed on the growth in Colorado production, so when the time comes for request a larger appropriation of incentive funds, say $10 million, there will be political support for such a move.

The other challenge facing the industry is its own capability and its ability to make sure the production world knows Colorado can crew these incoming projects.

Zuckerman indicated that chief among the concerns of outside production companies, primarily feature film producers, is the ability of the local industry to field the needed professional crews to support a big production.

Okay. Okay. Those of you who are now standing up and screaming at your computer screen, please sit down and calm yourself. We all know the crews are here. The talent is here. The will is here. And the desire is here. The commissioner is simply reporting what he is hearing about outside perceptions of Colorado’s production community.

The challenge, then, is to keep improving our effectiveness in communicating the production capabilities to out of state producers. That is a public relations and communications chore that CFVA certainly can continue to take the lead on.

Neither of these concerns is insurmountable. In fact, as mentioned earlier, they are the kind of problems any industry would want. The specter of having too much business is a nice problem to solve. As for getting the word out, we are, after all, professional communicators.

Optimistic Outlook

While Zuckerman is still looking to ink that first feature film project under the new incentive, he is very optimistic.

“I think the pace is going to go up,” he said. “It took a while for people to really realize what our incentive is. I've now been getting calls from the big guys asking what's going on, can I get the incentive? The year before I never got a call from Paramount or Sony.”

Long time Denver writer and producer Richard J. Schneider writes about a variety of industry-related issues for the CFVA. His first mystery novel, WATER: A Vic Bengston Investigation is just out in paperback.