10 US states selling themselves without film tax incentive
The vast majority of the USA’s 50 states have film and TV tax incentives. For the rest, a lack of rebates and subsidies means persuading big budget productions to shoot in their state is extremely difficult. In this piece, we look at how the non-incentive states compete and what they can offer to compensate.
Arizona has a great movie-making tradition but has seen work dry up since it put a stop to its incentive in 2010. These days pretty much any work of note goes to nearby states such as California, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and Utah. That said, Arizona did act as a double for Iraq in the David O. Russell feature Three Kings and continues to be a draw for Western filmmakers.
For his movie, Hot Bath An’ A Stiff Drink, producer Jeffrey Patterson shot at Old Tucson Studios and Mescal, a fake Western town that lies 50km outside the city of Tucson. “We scouted all over New Mexico and Arizona and there’s only one place I considered filming, and that was Old Tucson and Mescal,” says Patterson. “The rich history and amazing locations Old Tucson and Mescal offer are beyond compare.”
Tucson has attempted to trade off this residual affection for the state by introducing an incentive that discounts rent on city-owned or operated property (for films with costs of $2m plus).
The main reasons to shoot in the state are: the proximity to industry hub California, the impressive deserts, the Western tradition and the fact that Arizona can be a safe, easy to access double. Aside from doubling for Iraq, it was also used to imitate Tijuana in Mexico for the comedy feature film Hangover 3.
Tijuana was rebuilt in Arizona for The Hangover 3
Delaware doesn’t get a lot of production because it has no film and TV incentives. But it does have a number of other things going for it. It was, for example, the first US state to sign the constitution meaning it has a strong historical heritage. Notable buildings include the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, and Fourteen Foot Bank Light, the lighthouse near Bowers Beach.
There are also numerous farms throughout the state with varying crops and livestock, as well as Dover International Speedway (Nascar), Dover Downs (horse racing) and Harrington Casino. Film Delaware adds: “Delaware is an Atlantic Coastal state, offering seaside vistas, the Delaware, Brandywine, and Christina Rivers, historic old New Castle, and the University of Delaware, as well as collections and gardens at Winterthur.”
The state’s location means it is easy to get to from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC. Its compact size makes getting to and from various locations is also easy.
Among recent productions, PBS shot An American experience: The Abolitionists in New Castle. Further back, the film Failure To Launch shot in Delaware, as did episodes of the TV show The West Wing.
Failure to Launch with Matthew McConaughey filmed in Delaware
It’s clear when you look at a map of the US that the Mid West states have fallen out of love with film incentives. Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin have all suspended incentives in recent times. Kansas stopped its 30% incentive at the end of 2013, meaning it is now much less attractive as a filming location.
In terms of what is on offer, Kansas locations include forested hills, rolling prairies, unusual rock formations, flat open plains, cities and small period towns. It is well-known for its crops, which makes it a useful port of call for commercials companies.
Kansas has a history of welcoming production, which means it has a good range of production services companies. It also ranks high as a place to live and work by various measures. However the competition for work was tough even when there were incentives in place. Even projects that were set in Kansas elected to shoot in places like Louisiana and Canada.
The incentive debate is raging in Indiana following the breakout success of The Fault In Our Stars. Based on the novel by John Green, the story is set in Indiana but the film was made in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As the Indianapolis Business Journal said: “It was more cost-effective to re-create the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s iconic Funky Bones sculpture than it was to film in Indianapolis. Because of the vacuum created by lack of incentives, Indiana’s industry is small and the infrastructure for productions has migrated to neighbouring states.” (Illinois, for example, is just to the East and has a 30% incentive on offer).
Historically, films such as Rain Man, Pearl Harbour and Road to Perdition have shot here. Plus points include good crews, minimal red tape and a new studio. Built in 2014 by Forward Motion Entertainment, the Indianapolis-based studio features a large cyc wall and green screen. It was designed with both large scale production and more intimate productions in mind.
In terms of locations, Indiana is not blessed with much in the way of exotic scenery but it does manage to pull in projects sometimes. 2012 comedy Back In The Day was shot in Newburgh. Explaining why he didn’t shoot in LA, director Michael Rosenbaum cited authenticity, the desire to “capture the essence of where I grew up in the Midwest.”
Kevin Costner Field of Dreams filmed in Iowa
Iowa, made 'famous' by Kevin Costner’s 1989 baseball classic Field of Dreams, suspended its film tax credit after a huge corruption scandal involving the state’s film chief at the time. Since then it has had to rely on other arguments to attract filmmakers. Chief among these are its locations and easy access.
The film office says: “The land between two rivers — the Mississippi and Missouri — offers a world of rolling hills, rich farmland and unexpected treasures. From the unique landscapes of the Loess Hills to immigrant, old-world communities to urban world-class art, we offer it all. We’re also conveniently located at the crossroads of America — Interstates 80 and 35 — so we’re a quick hop from either coast.”
Iowa is also an easy state to film in. There is very little red tape and crew are hard working and efficient: “Remember, the world comes to our doorsteps every four years with the political caucuses so we’re really quite media savvy,” says the Film Office. They also add that the state has "a five-year average score as the second lowest cost of doing business”. New York is 49th by comparison.
There was one setback for Iowa this year when the hit comedy Girls wanted to film on campus at the University of Iowa but was refused permission because of the storylines involved.
In 2013, the Missouri Film Office says assistance was provided to 121 television series and segments, commercials, films, and web media production projects throughout the state. However, now that the state has axed its film and TV incentive (late 2013) it will be interesting to see if that activity is sustained.
From a crew, permitting and kit perspective, the industry in Missouri is well-established and has played host to films like Up In The Air, Escape From New York and You’re Next in the past. The most recent major film to shoot here was Ben Affleck’s Gone Girl, which filmed in college town Cape Girardeau. The local industry will be hoping that this provides it with a much-needed boost.
Greater Kansas City (not to be confused with the Kansas City in Kansas) has its own film commission, which is proactive in bringing film and TV work to the city. In terms of locations, it offers, “colleges and campuses, mansions, wheatfields, modern office complexes, art deco buildings and old west towns within 45 minutes of Kansas City downtown.”
Alexander Payne scored a hit with his film Nebraska, shot mainly in the state itself
Nebraska is difficult to get to and doesn’t have any film tax incentives, so you really need a good reason to go there to shoot your film. But if you do venture there you’ll receive a warm welcome from the film-friendly authorities and residents.
The big story in 2013 was the release of Alexander Payne’s critically acclaimed movie Nebraska, which tells the story of a father and son travelling from Montana to Nebraska to claim an apparent lottery win. Payne spent 30 days filming in Nebraska, the state where he grew up. That commitment is reckoned to have generated in the region of $1.5m for the local economy.
The Nebraska Film Office is hoping the publicity surrounding the film will encourage indie filmmakers, commercials and corporate producers to take advantage of what the state offers. In terms of locations, it offers rolling fields of corn, beans, wheat and other crops in the east, cattle-grazing land in the centre and the beautiful Pine Ridge in the west. As for cities and towns, the biggest population centres are Omaha and Lincoln. Both can provide urban locations such as industrial centres, residential, parks and modern cityscapes.
North Dakota/South Dakota
North Dakota has no film office and no tax incentives. It is an interesting state geographically but doesn’t have much that can be found in other US states or in Canada. Explaining North Dakota’s stance on film incentives, state tourism director Sara Otte Coleman says: “It’s one of those games that you can’t get into without the ‘go big or go home’ mindset. We’re talking millions of dollars in order to compete with locations like Canada.”
Filmmakers who do go to North Dakota are likely to be looking for Indian reservations or attractive crop-based backdrops.
South Dakota, home to Mount Rushmore and the badlands, is more on the map when it comes to film production, although it too is hampered by a lack of incentives. There the film office says the state offers beautiful contrasts with the "wide Missouri River flowing southward through the middle of the state.Farms and towns in the southeast offer the classic, rural America look.
"West of the river are deep canyons and rolling plains. The enchanting Black Hills rise abruptly in the southwest. Southeast of the Black Hills are the Badlands, a unique location and a perfect backdrop for a director’s vision of other planets, the Old West, oceans drained of water, or dare we suggest, hell?”
Films to have visited South Dakota include National Treasure 2.
New Hampshire/Vermont [New England]
Neither New Hampshire nor Vermont has film incentives. But both are film-friendly states with beautiful scenery on offer. New Hampshire is regarded as a no-hassle, low-tax environment where it is relatively easy to get permits. In terms of locations, it has the White Mountains, Great North Woods, Lakes Region as well as beautiful, historic towns and villages.
Vermont is similar. Despite having no film tax incentives, it does have a dynamic arts community. Locations include the picturesque city of Burlington, Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains, the Catamount Trail and a series of ski resorts. There is no coastline but there are rustic bridges, lakeside properties, colonial buildings, pretty country lanes and town markets. There is also an industrial side to the state.
Like New Hampshire, filming is fairly straightforward though national parks/state-owned land will require special permits.
Johnny Depp in Public Enemies shot in Wisconsin
Wisconsin is another state that has recently put an end to film tax incentives. The move hasn’t gone down well with the local filmmaking community, who say it was doing a good job bringing work into the state. It’s too early to say how much impact the loss of the incentive will have, but it will be harder for the state to attract films like Transformers 3 and Public Enemies, both of which shot in the state under the old regime.
The responsibility for attracting filmmakers to the state lies with Film Wisconsin, which says: “Wisconsin’s beauty is breathtaking. Everywhere in between lie lakes, rivers, streams, farms, prairies and woodlands. Cities of all sizes dot the state, from timeless normal Rockwell-like small towns to working class industrial areas and modern urban landscapes.”
The key cities in the state would be Milwaukee and Madison. The latter also boasts a modern studio for commercials and corporate videos.
To find out more about filming in these states or any other US states, please take a look at our production guides.