Monday, April 28, 2008

The Home Town Discount

I read April 15th Portland Press Herald article titled “Filmmakers ask state for $800,000” with great interest and great chagrin. The timing of the article, with the state legislature and the senate in the middle of cutting important state programs in order to balance the budget and the misleading title, were frustrating for those of us who believe that media production can have a positive, powerful impact on the State of Maine’s economy and Maine’s ability to market itself in tough economic times.

“Filmmakers offer State $400,000 Home Team Discount “, would have been an appropriate title for the article. Just like my favorite third baseman, Mike Lowell of the Boston Red Sox who signed for 37.5 million over 3 years to play for the Sox instead of 50 million over 4 years to play for the Philly’s, the filmmakers were offering Maine a home team discount.

With film incentives in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island ranging from 25% to 30% the additional cost to investors in the film would increase up to another $400,000 to shoot in Maine. Why would any investor spend another $400,000 on a project when shooting it in Maine doesn’t add any return on investment value?

The answer is simple. Desi Van Til, who wrote the script, titled “Tumbledown”, grew up in Franklin County and the story takes place there. From an emotional and artistically accurate standpoint it is important to her and her husband, Sean Mewshaw, that the film is shot in Maine.

Filmmakers are emotional, passionate people who will sacrifice money for their art and their beliefs. They will go to great lengths to court their investors and then fight like hell to make sure their project is geographically and historically accurate.

In this case Desi and Sean were simply trying to bring the financial numbers close enough so that they would have a shot at success when they made the pitch to their investors to have the film produced in Maine.

Rep. Janet Mills, D-Farmington, sponsored legislation that would reimburse 20% of the film’s expenses.

While the Red Sox felt that they needed to offer Mike Lowell a contract that was 75% of what the Philly’s were offering, Desi and Sean felt that getting Maine’s incentives to 67% of what Connecticut could offer was enough to get their investors to agree to a home town discount.

The bill made it through the legislature with the help of some intense viral marketing and education by film advocate Barney Martin who sent email after email making sure that all the legislators and senators had the best chance to understand what they were voting on.

When the bill went before the senate, Senator Paula Benoit from Phippsburg made an impassioned plea, “The film industry is waiting right on the cusp – they’re right on the edge. They keep coming into the state. They get a little piece of work here or there, but nothing that they can really call a film industry in Maine. And I’m not sure why the film commission wasn’t down here lobbying quite frankly. I’m very disappointed in them. I think they should have been right here working with us on this and helping us understand if this group went to them first, why they were not here working on it with us….and why they were turned away if they did do that. It’s my understanding that they tried to go through the avenues that we have available and they were either not returned their calls, they were ignored…”

Initially the bill passed the senate by a 24 to 9 vote. Sean and Desi momentarily thought they had their shot at bringing “Tumbledown” to Maine. Then the lobbying from Senator Libby Mitchell of Vasselboro began and the bill was brought back to be voted on again. This time it was defeated 21-12.

What brought Mike Lowell Back to the Red Sox was the camaraderie and the leadership provided by the coach and the management.

Right now, as Senator Benoit pointed out in her speech, the film industry has no official leadership in Maine. Until there is true leadership, bills like these will continue to fail and projects that have the potential to impact Maine in an economically uplifting way will continue
to be shot where they can save the most money with Maine having no chance to enjoy “The Home Team Discount.”

Next blog subject: “Building Media Leadership in Maine”