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Jackpot or boondoggle? State's efforts to attract Hollywood productions produce mixed results.


State's Efforts To Attract Hollywood Productions Produce Mixed Results

In several weeks, representatives of the state Motion Picture Development Office will travel to Southern California.

They won't be going on vacation. They'll instead be attending an annual exposition designed to entice moviemakers off Hollywood back lots and into the hinterlands.

The Arkansans will hand out quartz crystals and sing the praises of the state as a place to film.

"We can't just go out there and tell them we have mountains and trees," says William Asti, a Little Rock architect and film enthusiast. "Hell, North Carolina has mountains and trees. And it has beaches to boot."

William Buck, director of the Motion Picture Development Office, promises he'll do more than hand out rocks and discuss scenery.

"I have an obsession about this state and its potential for attracting movies," says Buck, who returned in January to a job he previously held from December 1985 until September 1986.

Attracting movies is a competitive business -- and a sexy one. Because of that sexiness, there rarely has been any middle ground on the subject of the film industry and the role the state should play in making sure Arkansas gets its share of business.

On the one hand are those who preach the industry's gospel and believe tax dollars invested in Hollywood will be returned many times over.

On the other hand are the skeptics who laugh at the notion of a small, poor state ever picking up more than Hollywood's crumbs. The state, they say, is simply not in a position to be a major player.

As with most complex business issues, the truth lies somewhere in between.

No black. No white. Lots of gray.

Pending before the Legislature are three bills sponsored by Rep. Doug Wood of Sherwood that could dramatically change Arkansas' role.

Another State Agency?

Wood's first bill would create a state Motion Picture Commission and move the Motion Picture Development Office out from under the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission. In its original form, it also would have levied a tax of two cents per movie ticket to fund the office.

The measure did not make it out of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, however, and Wood has amended it so the film office would operate with general revenue funds. Wood hopes the bill will be reconsidered this week.

The second bill would appropriate about $150,000 per year to operate the development office with five employees, including a salary of almost $31,000 for the director.

The third bill would drop from $1 million to $500,000 the amount of money motion picture production companies must spend in Arkansas before receiving 5 percent rebates. The measure has passed the House and should be considered by the Senate before the end of the month.

Under the current law, four companies have been given rebates:

* Caldix Productions was paid $50,174.28 for "A Soldier's Story"

* Vista Films was paid $92,780.10 for "Three for the Road" and "Pass the Ammo"

* Rastar Productions was paid $106,006.81 for "Biloxi Blues"

* And Stouffer Enterprises was paid $54,926.12 for "The Man Outside."

"These bills would really put us in the market as far as attracting movies," Wood says. "They would allow us to get a foot in the door. The movie people come in, don't pollute, spend large amounts of money and leave."

Wood sponsored the legislation creating the Motion Picture Development Office in 1979. He says that because the focus of the AIDC is on industrial development, the film office suffers from a lack of identity.

"By having its own identity, the office would have more pull in Hollywood," he says.

That is one of the few things on which those who follow the film industry in Arkansas agree.

Too Many Guidelines

"The film office has too many procedures and guidelines that must be adhered to," says Joe Bransford of Arkadelphia, a writer who heads a private motion picture development group known as the Southern Film Alliance. "They are doing all they can given the restrictions. Giving the office independence would remove some of those restrictions."

"While I'm not wild about creating another state agency, I understand that the film office will always be a secondary component of AIDC," says Ben Combs, the Little Rock advertising executive who chairs the city's Motion Picture and Television Commission. "We must set up an infrastructure the motion picture industry can depend on."

As an AIDC employee, Buck chooses his words carefully when addressing the issue of independence.

"The thing I am concerned about is that we might end up with less money," he says. "You must understand that in addition to our direct appropriation, we have money that comes from AIDC general funds. For example, we don't pay for our mailing costs. Those come out of AIDC general funds. AIDC does our bookkeeping. I drive an AIDC car. We're on the AIDC computer system.

"No one has evaluated the hidden costs we would have to absorb if we were to become independent."

Critics wonder if the film office is even worth the present cost.

Buck obviously thinks so.

He lists "A Soldier's Story" in 1983, the television miniseries "The Blue and the Gray" in 1981, "Biloxi Blues" in 1987, "Three for the Road" in 1986 and "Pass the Ammo" in 1987 as productions that "seriously looked at other places. I can guarantee you those movies wouldn't have been here if not for this office."

The five productions had total instate expenditures of more than $8 million.

"There hasn't been much more than $2 million spent on this office since it was established in 1979," Buck says. "That's a $4 return on the dollar for just these movies. People don't have a problem with spending tax money to bring a convention to town. I guess we need to communicate the fact that bringing in a movie is like booking a 100-person convention for six to eight weeks.

"These people usually are given about $40 a day for food. You can't spend $40 a day on food in someplace like Brinkley. Movie people are just looking for ways to spend money."

Those who track the industry, though, realize there are limitations.

"You have to be realistic," Combs says. "There are movies that aren't going to come to Arkansas no matter what we do."

Script Driven

Producers are script driven.

If the script calls for a bucolic setting, Arkansas stands a chance. Nature and survivalist films are a possibility. High-budget science fiction films needing special effects experts are out of the question.

"There are intangibles involved," says Gary Jones of Little Rock's Jones Productions Inc., who produced two independent films, "Stay Tuned for Murder" in 1987 at a cost of $450,000 and "Too Scared to Laugh" in 1988 at a cost of $225,000.

"It's unrealistic to expect that we will get two or three big-budget productions per year. We have too many things working against us, such as the fact that there is no direct air service from Little Rock to Los Angeles."

Jones says in-state producers have trouble attracting the capital necessary to do quality work.

"Technically, you can do most of what needs to be done in Arkansas at a competitive price," he says. "But it's impossible to attract a name actor without money. And without a name actor, your production is at risk."

Jones' first film generated distributor advances but has not made money. His second film is just now being released on video and has yet to make a nickel.

"What we need is someone who is a real success in the industry and is interested in maintaining an Arkansas base, not in going to Hollywood," Jones says. "Only those with proven track records in Hollywood have access to capital. I'm undercapitalized."

Jones believes Arkansas' financial "movers and shakers" are wary of investing in film projects.

"There have been too many scams, too many charlatans who are overenthusiastic and undercapitalized," he says. "In this industry, you have to count your fingers after shaking hands."

So Jones cannot expect a Stephens Inc. to invest $5 million in one of his films?

"That won't happen," he says matter of factly. "The engine that drives the Arkansas film industry is the production of television commercials, not movies."

"You're going to have first-time filmmakers who leave people in the lurch," Bransford says. "That's a fact of life. This business is like a carnival. Unfortunately, people tend to remember the grifter who came to town and not the smart businessman.

"If Arkansas people really trust you, they'll give you anything you ask for within reason. But if you take them for a ride, you and your industry are suspect from then on. They'll tell everyone they meet that when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas."

Niche For Arkansas

Still, those with a knowledge of the film industry agree there's a niche Arkansas can fill. The debate is over what steps the state should take to get its slice of the lucrative film industry pie.

"I doubt we'll ever be on a par with a Southern state such as North Carolina," says Bob Ginnaven, a Little Rock advertising executive and actor. "That state has built everything from sound stages to processing labs.

"We're never going to be a major film center. By the same token, the days of doing everything on back lots in Hollywood is gone. We can attract films if we realize that movie people are busy. We must have the type of incentives that will draw their attention."

"Our goal is to attract enough productions that a corps of 120 to 125 Arkansas people can make a living through film," the film office's Buck says. "I wouldn't be back in this position if I didn't think that were possible.

"There has to be a middle ground," says Harry Thomason, the Arkansan who has teamed up with his wife Linda to create such successful network television programs as "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade." "Film is never going to be a big industry in Arkansas, but it could be a part of the economic mix."

Thomason says the key is making the state's film office independent and putting a full-time employee in Southern California.

"I don't have anything against the Arkansas people who come out here each spring and put on a social hour," he says while speaking on a car phone, stuck in a traffic jam somewhere on the Ventura Freeway. "I love seeing them. But that money could be used to help pay someone's salary out here. The people who attend the social hour are there to be seen and get a meal. They're not the people we need to be dealing with."

Combs says if the state will not fund a California-based employee, corporate contributions should be solicited.

"We must have a representative on the ground, a person who reads the trade publications first thing in the morning and starts working the phone," he says. "We're not very sophisticated when it comes to marketing. We're reactive rather than proactive.

"If someone knocks on our door, we'll respond and show them around. We'll have to do more than that to attract movies in the |90s."

PHOTO : SHOW BUSINESS, BIG BUSINESS: Kathy Hastings (pictured on the left), information specialist for the state Motion Picture Development Office, and Natalie Canerday, the film office's assistant director, look over photos of Arkansas locations. The photos will be shown to film producers at an exposition in California. A bill pending before the Legislature would make the film office independent of the Arkansas Industrial Development Comission.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on disjointed efforts to attrach motion picture production; promotion of location filming in Arkansas
Author:Nelson, Rex
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Feb 25, 1991
Previous Article:New blood at city hall.
Next Article:Big spenders: Arkansas purchasing professionals controlling billions of dollars gather next month in Little Rock.

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