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Boxed out



True Grit, for which John Wayne earned his only Oscar, was filmed largely in the picturesque Colorado mountain town of Ouray. Now, more than 40 years later, its remake takes to the hills, plains and dusty dirt roads of New Mexico and Texas, with nary a tribute to the original's trek across the Centennial State.

Media reports have offered a few different reasons for that. But while Joel and Ethan Coen really may have found, say, the perfect 19th-century architecture in and around Austin, something else likely factored in, too: money.

"I can just about guarantee you that incentives played a role in their decision," says Kevin Shand of the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media. "Any time we get a call, the first question is, 'What are your incentives?' Ultimately, it's about the bottom line."

And it's no secret among local members of the film industry that Colorado's incentives program is wanting.

Jamin Winans, Denver-based director of the viral, 2009 sci-fi film Ink, calls Colorado's film fund incredibly limited; it offers only a 10 percent rebate to producers. Multimillion-dollar film states like New Mexico, Louisiana and Michigan counter with 25 to 42 percent rebates.

"Colorado is almost last in the country for film incentives," says Winans, who filmed Ink entirely within the state. "Many of the legislators seem to think that the money earned isn't worth the money spent. I'm not sure why that's the belief. Studies indicate that film incentives have created a substantial number of jobs and revenue for the states that have them."

Make Middle Earth

Pete Schuermann is a Colorado Springs-based director in the process of determining where to film his current project. He's contemplating taking Creep!, a documentary revealing the story behind the worst monster movie ever made, to New Mexico. There, the allure of incentives goes beyond rebates and into free lodging, or what is called "hotel occupancy tax relief."

The only thing keeping Schuermann's business at home at the moment is a core group of people he prefers to work with over anyone else, who happen to live in Colorado.

"It seems like such an alien thing to this community, that filmmaking should be an industry, that it can bring dollars into the community," Schuermann says. "I would like to see more incentives because I think that bringing more filmmakers around and having the sense that Colorado was actually a part of something just generates more awareness to the form."

Both Winans and Schuermann point to The Lord of the Rings series for proof of the positive impact films can have on a region. Nearly a decade after the film trilogy's first release, still boasts several Rings-themed tours. Ahead of The Hobbit's two-part filming schedule, set to begin in February 2011, fears that filmmakers might move led to national protests; ultimately the New Zealand government, facing not only an inspired populace but also the threat of millions in lost revenue, increased its subsidies and managed to keep the film.

"Legislators need to understand that supporting the arts and creating an art-friendly state has substantial economic advantages," Winans says. "Something that's frequently overlooked is the value film production has on tourism and the branding it creates for a city or state. We need to consider how valuable it is to have our state constantly being seen by the rest of the world."

Crafting creative industry

Those sentiments seem not to be lost on incoming governor John Hickenlooper. Though he and his staff did not return our calls, a look on his website's Issues/Arts and Creative Enterprises section calls for reviewing current film production incentives "and develop[ing] a sustainable model to grow the local film industry."

Shand says recent legislative changes via House Bill 10-1180 have already proven their worth. The legislation, which took effect on July 1, makes it easier for projects willing to hire 25 percent of production crews locally to qualify for reimbursement from the state. The bill removed the restrictive requirement that 75 percent of below-the-line production costs — the film's actual shooting budget outside of the paychecks to the producer director and major stars — be spent within Colorado. Out-of-state production companies must still spend $250,000 here (down from $1 million), while local companies need to shell out $100,000 to qualify.

For the first time, the office has had enough applicants (15 projects in this case) to commit all of its $1.5 million in funding, leaving it with no choice but to close down the incentives program for the rest of this fiscal year, which runs through June 30. It is, however, recommending that hopefuls continue to apply in an effort to build a case for more future funding.

Shand says the recent spike in interest is certainly related to the legislative changes, and while the office's target applicants are decidedly smaller fish, the revised legislation also makes life simpler (and cheaper) for larger production companies looking to film bits and pieces of a project in Colorado.

"Honestly," Shand says, "we spend very little time going after big Hollywood features because we're not going to get them, and we know that. Compared to other states, we focus on the really small guy. This is something that makes sense for Colorado. But in the long run, we're going to create more local jobs by lowering the kind of protectionist requirements we had before."

He highlights independent producers, television commercials and people who make their living locally in this industry, emphasizing that Colorado does have a strong production community and a long history of filmmaking. (In more recent years, the state has hosted feature films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Dumb and Dumber and Mr. & Mrs. Smith.) Nearly every region of the state has been used as a filming location.

As for incentives and the fiscal support of Colorado's film industry, Shand says his office is working on the program daily. He adds that the office has gained strength since the state combined it with the Colorado Council on the Arts and the Art in Public Places Program.

"What we're really trying to do is look at more than just film, art, nonprofits," he says of what's now known as Colorado Creative Industries. "We're looking at the entire creative economy, because if you have a vibrant creative economy you're going to have lots of film and television and lots of theater for people to see. We're looking at how to present Colorado as a leader in the entire creative industry section."

An endeavor, the local film scene is well aware, that itself will bring one form of true grit back home.

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