Building an Idaho Film Industry

The Legislature wants outside forces to do it; local filmmakers would rather get the support themselves


If the Idaho Film Task Force has its way, 2006 will be remembered as the year the Idaho Legislature "got serious" about supporting filmmaking, starting with February 15, when the House Revenue and Taxation Committee unanimously passed HB497, a sales-tax rebate bill for the film and media industry.

Idaho Film Task Force co-chair Ben Shedd partially credits Film Idaho Day (an event where various filmmaking entities showed their wares and chatted with legislators held on February 14 in the capitol building rotunda) with the passing of this first hurdle: "Film Idaho Day was a solid success. The fact that HB497 moved so quickly through the House Tax and Revenue Committee speaks for itself on the impact of Film Idaho Day. This is good news, a good step forward and good for Idaho's economy and our industry."

The next step (for anyone who doesn't remember the "I'm Just A Bill" episode of School House Rock) is for the bill to go before the State House of Representatives, then the Senate, and--if it passes both--finally, the desk of Governor Dirk Kempthorne, who would sign it into law.

Few politicians would veto a bill that--quite literally--costs the state nothing and is aimed at bringing jobs and money into Idaho. A quick look at HB497 shows that it provides a sales tax rebate on qualifying expenses when a minimum of $200,000 is spent on a film or media production project in Idaho over 36 months. Since the Association of Film Commissions International estimates that feature motion pictures spend between $35,000 and $150,000 per day on location, it's a no-brainer why Director Roger Madsen of the Department of Commerce and Labor and Representative Jana Kemp (co-chair of the Idaho Film Task Force) support a bill aimed at making Idaho competitive with surrounding states that have no sales tax, and the more than 20 states offering exemptions to their sales taxes.

"The only tangible benefit I see from the task force for Idaho-based filmmakers is a little bit of free press and the opportunity the task force meetings themselves have provided for filmmakers to meet each other," says Andrew Ellis, founder of Small Pond Films, the i48 48-Hour Film Competition and co-founder of North End Films, an Idaho independent film company. "Since there hasn't been a film shot in Boise with a budget over $15,000 since summer '01," Ellis continues, "a sales tax rebate for films with budgets of $200,000 plus won't make much difference."

Not that the task force isn't doing what it set out to do in the first place. According to its statement of purpose, the task force is focused on: a) creating sustainable film and media industry jobs in Idaho; b) encouraging people, especially young people, to stay in Idaho to pursue jobs; c) keeping income in Idaho and generating new income; d) expanding revenues in Idaho to both the private and public sectors; e) generating additional film and tourism interest in Idaho; and f) putting Idaho on a level playing field for business development in the media industry.

The bottom line is more money and jobs for Idaho, a banner which Representative Kemp readily hoisted. "A constituent came to me about this, and I saw the potential for growing a business here in Idaho. Right now, we have a viable volume of workers, but no work here. The tax incentive is part of how we create a competitive field in Idaho," Kemp says.

Michael D. Gough, producer/director of this year's homegrown indie film Autumn Angel, sees two sides to the issue. "This doesn't help me, not at my budget, but it has led to the connection of 17-20 groups from all levels of professionalism, from Small Pond to university groups." Gough finds the level of networking beneficial, saying, "Connections have helped us significantly, especially in helping us promote to a level we couldn't have by ourselves." However, he doesn't see any immediate impact on the independent filmmaker as a result of HB497. "We could benefit in the long run by attracting investors ... [but right now] they can go to these other states. Idaho's not competitive right now."

Ellis is less optimistic. "I don't see production companies flocking to Idaho because they can get a sales-tax rebate," he says. "We still have to compete with the surrounding states with even more deluxe tax packages, and Canada offering actual loans/grants to film production companies. Not to be entirely negative, though--it's a start, and it does allow Idaho to offer something."

One issue is this: some believe the interests of Idaho independent filmmakers who are clawing and scratching their way toward the creation of a viable homegrown industry are pitted against the interests of a Legislature seeking to invite an industry from out of state to drop in, spend some cash and leave, taking their jobs (and workers) with them when they're done.

"If the Legislature really wants to help Idaho filmmaking, they should invest in education (i.e. a film school at Boise State or Idaho State) and fund a filmmaker grant program available only to Idaho-based filmmakers or films shot wholly within Idaho," says Ellis. "And by grants, I mean considerable grants, in the $500,000 to $2 million range. I can't see the Legislature doing either of these things in our lifetime."

Idaho politicians are interested in bringing money and jobs to Idaho. Indie filmmakers, on the other hand, want to see their local Legislature helping them to develop an infrastructure more in line with the stated Idaho Film Task Force's goal of creating a sustainable film industry in Idaho. As producer of two of seven films shot in Idaho since 2001, however, I have to wonder if this legislation is much ado about nothing; that the politicians will maintain the status quo and expect another Napoleon Dynamite to emerge from the wilderness of the unsupported Idaho independent filmmaker, all while saying that it was the tax break that made it possible. Oh, Jared Hess, where are you? You can make a difference in our artistic community and help the Idaho State Legislature and the Idaho independent filmmaker see eye-to-eye and create an industry that does support the vision of local filmmakers, that does bring in serious investors and businesses that would locate in (instead of pass through) Idaho, that does allow for more than just an "us" and "them" mentality among the groups involved.

Oh yeah, I forgot. Hess moved to Utah.

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