WisBusiness: Badger State film fans hoping for ‘Take Two’ in April

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – Backers of tax-incentive legislation that might entice movie producers to Wisconsin say they aren’t giving up hope, even though their proposal was edited from the recently concluded legislative floor period.

“We’re going to keep pushing for it because it would almost overnight create what is now a moribund film industry in this state,” argued Dave Fantle of VISIT Milwaukee, Milwaukee’s de facto film office. (Wisconsin’s counterpart was eliminated in the last budget.)

With the incentives, Fantle estimated that Wisconsin could have $100 million worth of movie and television productions a year by the end of the decade. Even if producers get a 25 percent tax break – as SB 563 proposes – he said that would a big gain for the state.

“It would also give Wisconsin a bit of a ‘wow’ factor we don’t have now,” he gushed.

“Wouldn’t it be something to have a Julia Roberts making a movie in Rhinelander or Brad Pitt doing a film and going to clubs in Milwaukee?” he said.

“It might also keep some of our creative people at home if they could do film, television and other productions here instead of having to go elsewhere.”

Fantle said he and other movie promoters are hoping the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee will take up SB 563 in April and pass it. The JFC must consider the bill because of the tax breaks fiscal impact on the state coffers.

“It has a lot of support, so we’re confident it would be passed by the Assembly and Senate and signed by the governor if there is a special session,” Fantle said.

Mike Richards, a policy advisor for bill-sponsor Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, agreed and said, “we’d like to see the Joint Finance Committee meet again. We are hoping they come back in one more time because we want to get this bill through.

“We think Wisconsin has a lot to offer producers, but they need some incentives to come here,” he said. “Even with the tax breaks, we would have a net gain because we don’t have much of anything now.”

Fantle said the legislation could save producers millions of dollars and put the Badger State on the same tax footing as Canada, Louisiana, North Carolina and New Mexico – where many films are made.

According to the state Revenue Department, $5 million of wages for a production company would result in a $1.25 tax credit. Likewise, producers would get a $2.5 million incentive on $10 million of production work.

Fantle and other backers – including a group called Film Wisconsin – cited a study showing that North Carolina was humming with movie productions after that state passed tax incentives.

In 2004 alone, producers employed thousands of workers spent $235 million in North Carolina. Fantle said nearly 50 percent of all production dollars are spent locally.

Fantle said he has been in talks with several movie-makers who have scouted sites in southeastern Wisconsin.

“They are ready to go if the Legislature acts and the governor signs the bill, but it’s a non-starter without those tax breaks,” he said.

In a letter to Kanavas, Madison native Jerry Zucker said he would be delighted to see Wisconsin become a “film-friendly” state.

He said he is often asked why he and his brother David have not shot any of their movies – which include “Airplane,” “Naked Gun” and “Ghost” – in Wisconsin.

“The answer is simple,” he wrote. “Even if the setting was exactly what we needed, the studios won’t let us because of filming in Wisconsin is too expensive, especially when compared to Canada and other states with aggressive incentives.

“In these days of increasing budgets, studios will force filmmakers to go where they can achieve the greatest savings.

“That is why so many films are shooting out of the country. At the moment, Wisconsin is not one of the places studios push filmmakers to consider.”

Indeed, UW-Madison graduate Tom Rosenberg filmed only a few exterior shots of his new movie “The Last Kiss,” in Madison – even though the movie is set there.

Most of the movie was filmed in Montreal, in large part because of Canadian tax incentives. (Labor costs are also lower north of the border, Fantle acknowledged.) Rosenberg is head of Lakeshore Entertainment, which produced the 2005 Oscar winner, “Million Dollar Baby.”

Other movie industry heavyweights who support the legislation include director and screenwriter David Koepp, a Pewaukee native.

He wrote Kanavas to say that he’d prefer to the upcoming flick “Supercollider” in Wisconsin – where it is set – but that he can’t do it without tax breaks.

Fantle said the legislation had the backing of both Republicans and Democrats – including Kanavas and Sen. Alberta Darling, Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and Gov. Doyle.

The bill includes tax credits for wages for people working on a production in Wisconsin; production expenses in the state and the production firm’s expenses during its first three years of operation here.