News Column

Maine weighs more financial perks to lure Hollywood [Sun Journal (Lewiston, ME)]

September 23, 2013

YellowBrix

AUGUSTA -- Cinematically, the streets of Portland would not pass for Manhattan. And Mount Katahdin, though majestic, is no Kilimanjaro.

Nevertheless, Maine is attracting increasing numbers of television and movie productions this year and cumulative spending has more than doubled.

"Film production in Maine is a great economic opportunity," said Karen Carberry Warhola, who just completed her first year as director of the state's film office.

During her tenure, Carberry Warhola has helped usher in nearly $3.7 million in filming activity, compared with last year's $1.5 million.

Her one-person department within the Maine Office of Tourism has one goal: to boost film and TV activity throughout the state and increase revenues.

As film and TV activity along the coast and country ramps up -- her office has certified 14 productions so far this year, versus eight in 2012 and 17 in 2011 -- it acts as a tourism magnet for the state and showcases lesser-known Maine destinations, such as lakeside Millinocket. Production begins there next week for the indie feature "The Girl in the Lake."

To lure more crews here, Carberry Warhola has revamped the state's website, FilminMaine.com, to highlight camera-ready filming locations -- from remote islands to classic restaurants to antique bridges. It also provides a digital directory of local talent ready for hire.

"Everyone knows that Maine is beautiful. We are telling people that we have plenty of lighthouses and talented crews who have worked on a lot of productions," said Carberry Warhola, who travels to film festivals to recruit productions and supports the filmmakers once they arrive.

Her Los Angeles experience and connections, gained through years of working as a production assistant and manager for companies including Buena Vista and Touchstone Television's Prime Time Awards, prepared her for this role.

"I've been hands-on in the industry, working on large-budget productions and small. I understand the needs of people who come to Maine for their projects. I understand the pace of their work. I get what they are doing," said the Bangor resident.

When Robert Mrazek wanted to shoot his screenplay about a burned- out congressman who finds a second chance on a Maine island, Carberry Warhola expedited his dream. After 12 days filming "Catatonk Blues" on Monhegan Island, his cast, which includes actors Treat Williams and George Hamilton, heads for Rockland next week and Augusta in early October.

"We've had such wonderful cooperation. She's [Carberry Warhola] given us great support to get us to shoot in Augusta at the state capitol," said Mrazek. "I'm going to be encouraging other filmmakers to film here."

While states such as Massachusetts and New York offer 25 to 30 percent in tax credits for film shoots, Maine's package is more restrained.

If a production spends at least $75,000, they are eligible for wage reimbursements -- 12 percent for Maine residents and 10 percent for out-of-state. There is also a 5 percent tax credit for approved visual media production expenses under the Maine Attraction Film Incentive Plan.

Vans Stevenson, senior vice president of state government affairs for the Motion Picture Association of America, said unless the state creates a more comprehensive incentive program, big budget films looking to save money likely will bypass the Pine Tree State.

"Maine is a favorite location for producers and directors because of its topography and beautiful coast and mountains and cities, but as the cost of production has increased and the pressure continues on budgets, right now companies are looking for credits that offset the cost of production," said Stevenson, who represents Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. "We would view Maine as not competitive."

But that could change.

The state's film incentives are being re-examined and in February new numbers will be released, said Doug Ray, communications director for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Recent results have impressed state officials.

"Last year the direct spend of the productions that filmed in Maine was almost $40 for every $1 paid out in the incentive program, an exceptional return on investment by any measure," added Carberry Warhola.

This spring the University of Maine released an economic impact report on film production and photography in the state. The study found that, including multiplier effects, the Maine film and photography sectors generate an annual statewide economic contribution of an estimated $117.7 million in output, 2,057 full- and part-time jobs, and $33.1 million in labor income.

For Mrazek, a New Yorker who bought a house on Monhegan in the 1980s, tax breaks were not part of the equation.

"I wanted to help the island. It's been so good for me and my family and children," said the writer, who remembers when Monhegan's fishing industry thrived. "We had 15 full-time fisherman, now tourism really is the economic engine."

And he would like to do his part to keep it afloat.

"If the film succeeds in the way we hope, we like to think people that see the natural beauty of this island will say 'Gosh I'd like to visit Monhegan, it looks like a fabulous place.'"

For filmmaker Tom Hildreth, who grew up in Portland, shooting "The Girl in the Lake" in Millinocket has multiple meanings.

Based on the novel "June Bug" set in West Virginia, it could have been shot anywhere. He chose Millinocket as "a way to revisit my community and do my work in an instinctive way."

The producer of the low-budget film has hired locals from Greater Bangor for small speaking parts and extras. He starts filming Tuesday for three weeks. After they wrap, they travel to Colorado and California.

Though the producer says his independent film will not set the local economy ablaze, every little bit helps.

"We rent out a hotel for three weeks, we are eating meals in town and renting things here," said Hildreth, who lives in New York and Los Angeles.

These independent films have not attracted the power of the paparazzi, but as the summertime tourist trade winds down, a few extra customers makes a difference.

The 35 cast and crew members of "Catatonk Blues" have kept the registers ringing at Carina Grocery and Deli on Monhegan.

"We make lunch for them every day and refreshments and snacks, which is great," said owner Tara Hire. "This time of year, I'm one of three places, down from seven or eight, doing lunch so there are less options. This is definitely having an impact."

When the actors, directors and camera operators board the ferry next week for Rockland, the deli will have cleared $5,000 it wouldn't have had otherwise.

And even if the tiny market doesn't make it to the big screen, it may get something else it didn't bargain on. Repeat business.

"When people work on a production and come back later that's an increase to the tourism in the state due to filmmaking," said Carberry Warhola.

Earlier this month Carberry Warhola attended the Toronto International Film Fest in support of " Beneath the Harvest Sky," which was filmed last fall in Aroostook County.

Seated next to a producer, she gave a 30-second pitch on Maine.

"The more you can get the name of Maine out there, mentioning that we have great locations, talented crew and film-friendly communities, the better," she said. "People see things on a screen and they want to go visit it and see it."

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