The role of a film commission
It’s no accident that countries with a strong track record in hosting film and TV production have great film commissions. Canada, the US, the UK, France and Germany, to cite just a few, are all blessed with such bodies. In fact all of these countries, with the exception of the US, have film commissions at the national, regional and local level. The result is a dynamic network of well-informed and well-connected film experts.
Their role kicks in right at the start of production planning, says Alexandra Luetkens, film commissioner at the Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein Film Commission in Germany: “How do I find funding, co-production partners and the right locations for my film? Where can I shoot and how do I contact the relevant individuals and authorities for permits? These, and other queries regarding shooting in Northern Germany, can be answered by our film commission.”
Luetkens, who has seen movies like A Most Wanted Man and Jerry Cotton come to Hamburg to take advantage of its warehouse district Speicherstadt, says “Our film commission´s information resources and valuable contacts help filmmakers save time and money. We can also advise on suitable facilities and services in the Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein area.”
These comments are echoed by Johanna Rose Whittle Navarro, who works for Film Commission Chile (FCCh). She says: “FCCh is a producer’s entry gate to shooting in Chile. We act as a support network to facilitate permit applications, import equipment for film shoots, supply foreign producers with the necessary contacts within Chile’s film industry, and provide information about locations all along the country. Also, FCCh promotes a Film Friendly country, directing a coordinated policy between all the public institutions related to filming permits, in order to make it always easier to shoot in Chile.”
This final point is an important one, because film commissions often play an important facilitation role behind-the-scenes. Aside from smoothing out permitting, they liaise with local authorities on issues like policing and traffic management.
Mary McGlinchey, marketing & communications manager at Northern Ireland Screen, says a film commission “is there to help facilitate projects and provides free hands-on assistance and guidance. In our case, we can help source Northern Ireland crew, who are widely-recognised for their expertise, professionalism and flexibility. We also offer financial support and assistance from a locations expert for familiarisation trips, which can be tailored to meet a project’s specific needs.”
While most producers see film commissions as facilitative bodies designed to make productions run smoothly, the best ones play a proactive role in persuading productions to come to their patch. Speaking about Game Of Thrones, McGlinchey says: “Our relationship with HBO started in 2008 – when a few Northern Ireland Screen reps met HBO personnel during a trip to LA. We had been tracking Game of Thrones and so invited the HBO team over on a familiarisation trip and showed what Northern Ireland had to offer in terms of locations, our studio facility and funding support. Around the same time, we were talking to Universal Pictures, who subsequently came and filmed their medieval comedy Your Highness here, so we were able to introduce our producer Mark Huffam to the HBO team and secure him for Game of Thrones. It was announced in April 2009 that HBO would film a pilot and the rest is history.”
In addition to this pursuit of work, film commissions will lobby governments for tax incentives and subsidies to boost local production. This was the case in California, where film commissioner Amy Lemisch was a vocal campaigner in favour of the state increasing its tax incentive in order to reduce runaway productions. That effort paid off this week when Governor Jerry Brown signed a new bill which will increase the state’s incentive from $100m a year to $330m a year for the next five years. That is a huge boost for producers. According to Lemisch, “The California Film Commission serves as the gateway for accessing the state’s newly expanded film/TV tax credit programme. It also provides a range of services to support productions of all sizes and budgets. Services include free permits on state property, location assistance and an expansive online location database, production assistance/troubleshooting, and help dealing with local jurisdictions via a network of over 50 regional film offices.”
One good indicator of a film commission’s capabilities is its website. The best examples generally provide 80% of the information you need before you even go to the trouble of contacting them. Go to any of the main producing states in Canada for example and you’ll find comprehensive production credits, a searchable location gallery, crew directories and information about tax credits. For companies needing to fill in paperwork there are usually downloadable forms.
As explained by McGlinchey, many film commissions will invite producers to do their initial recce/location search for free as an incentive to try and win business. It’s also fairly common for commissions to conduct fact-finding tours, where groups of location managers are shown what the country/region can offer location-wise. The more can-do members of the community will also find time to attend the top trade shows. While this is limited to some extent by budget, events like The Cannes Film Festival, MIPTV and other major film festivals have proved useful platforms for commissions to get their message out to potential customers. Screen Flanders, which hosted The White Queen, has had a high profile at MIPTV in recent years, no doubt helping it win high-end drama tasks. Other FC reps from areas like Lazio (Italy), the Cote d’Azur (France) and Rabat (Morocco) also use the market to present to producers.
This kind of proactive marketing can also be of benefit to producers. Film commissioners like it when a movie shoots on their turf, so they will generally get involved in the post-production marketing effort. Invariably, they are willing to take trade phone calls and will often get involved in the PR push.
Most film commissions have three rationales for attracting production. Firstly to create direct employment in the film and TV industry. Secondly to bring in expenditure on local goods and services. And thirdly, a longer-term goal, to encourage tourism. Viewed from this perspective, an effective film commission will usually have strong links with its local tourism office. The advantage of this is that it can make tourist chiefs aware of film-based marketing partnership opportunities.
A good example of how this can benefit a country was VisitScotland’s decision to base a marketing campaign around the Disney-Pixar animation film Brave. That partnership is expected to boost Scotland’s economy to the tune of £120m over five years. While Brave is an animation movie (so doesn’t actually use any real locations) the principle is transferable: good communication between film offices and tourism authorities can lead to some innovative marketing initiatives.
So how do you find a film commission? Well googling is as good a way as any, because well-run commissions pop up automatically. But if you want more of a sense of security, or if you are still choosing between different possible locations, you could contact the Association of Film Commissioners International, a non-profit association with more than 300 AFCI-Member film commissions on six continents. However you do it, contacting a commission saves time and energy.