Kansas City loves movies.
By ALAN GOFORTH
Special to The Star
We have more overall movie screens and art-house screens per capita than any city in the nation, said Butch Rigby, owner of three area Screenland Theatres and the Plaza 8 in St. Joseph.
Throughout the past century, Kansas City has been a major film distribution center, home to one of the nations leading producers of industrial films, and the place where Hollywood heavyweights such as Walt Disney and Robert Altman spent some time. Several theatrical movies, such as Article 99 and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, were filmed here. And the city has been home to at least three regional or national theater chains.
Kansas City is the cradle of Hollywood animation, said John Shipp, who has been involved in placing films in local theaters since MGM hired him in 1960. A hundred years ago, people gathered on Film Row downtown to trade reels of film and buy popcorn and other items for their theaters.
We have a marvelous history in film. We are absolutely on the cutting edge of animation. Thats not just a homers perspective; I do a lot of traveling around the country, and we have so much going on here compared to many other cities.
Uneven playing field
Local filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors believe the talent and infrastructure are in place to put Kansas City on the map as a player in the industry. However, the question on everyones mind is whether their passion and determination can overcome the uneven playing field created by a lack of tax incentives in both Kansas and Missouri. Kansas ended its incentive program at the end of 2012, and Missouris program will expire Saturday.
For example, Christmas in Conway, the seasonal Hallmark Hall of Fame that ABC will broadcast this Sunday, was shot in Wilmington, N.C.
All movie producers look for ways to reduce costs, said Brad Moore, the president of Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions in Kansas City. Its an expensive business, and any time there are significant opportunities to offset or cut expenses, producers must pursue them even moreso in the current economic environment than in the past. Its no secret that one important way to do this is to produce films where significant financial incentives are available.
The issue comes down to perspective. Many state legislators consider tax incentives to be corporate welfare for wealthy Hollywood producers, while filmmakers view them as opportunities to create jobs and showcase the region to a national audience.
A lot of critics of tax incentives like to talk about the fact that they dont want to give money to Hollywood, said Joni Tackette, a casting director in St. Louis and president of the Missouri Motion Media Association. But those who work in the industry are like carpenters who work on contract, going from job to job. They need to combine work on commercials, corporate videos and studio work. On a studio-level film, technical crew members earn between $22.50 and $40 an hour, which means more income taxes paid to the state.
The same is true in Kansas, said Peter Jasso, director of the Kansas Creative Arts Industry Commission in Topeka.
We are in the same boat as other states without incentives, he said. We have to concentrate on customer service, where you do whatever you can to encourage the local film industry, such as helping with the permit process. We get inquiries all of the time, just as when we had the incentive, but we are limited in what we can do.
How much money is at stake? First consider consumers who buy tickets to see movies on all of those screens. Shipp has his finger on the pulse of movie theater economics.
Most people are not really aware of the huge economic impact of the film industry, said Shipp, who also founded CinemaKC and FilmKC. I regularly see revenue numbers from 30,000 theaters. I can guarantee without fear of contradiction that the movie industry generates between a quarter and a half-billion dollars of revenue in Kansas City each year.
Although the impact of lost tax incentives cant be predicted, the Motion Picture
Association of America cites these figures for the production side of the business:
• Kansas. The motion picture and television industry is responsible for 4,538 direct jobs and $114.8 million in wages, including both production and distribution-related jobs.
• Missouri. The motion picture and television industry is responsible for 10,008 direct jobs and $336.4 million in wages in Missouri, including production and distribution jobs. More than half of the 1,500 jobs are related to production.
Secondary benefits are hard to quantify but just as real. For example, part of the Oscar-nominated movie Up in the Air with George Clooney was shot in St. Louis and created many short-term jobs in that city. 20th Century Fox recently filmed Gone Girl, based on the novel by Kansas City writer Gillian Flynn, in Cape Girardeau, Mo. It attracted an A-list of Hollywood talent, including director David Fincher and actor Ben Affleck.
The story was set in Missouri, and Fincher was looking for authenticity, Tackette said. They originally planned to shoot on location for only a short time but fell in love with the town and ended up staying for six weeks.
That meant buying food and lodging for cast and crew members. Its important to keep these secondary benefits in mind, said Bryce Young, a free-lance cinematographer in Kansas City. He worked on the critically acclaimed movie Winters Bone, which was released in 2010.
They took the entire cast and crew to shoot in Springfield and Branson during the off-season for tourism, he said. We stayed at the Branson Hilton and ate at Branson restaurants, which made their off-season. Unfortunately, the state of Missouri never did anything to follow up on the exposure generated by the film.
Rising to the challenge
Filmmakers agree that capitalizing on these successes will be more difficult without tax incentives. The problem is compounded by the fact that the Film Commission of Greater Kansas City no longer is being funded.
I have been with the commission for six years and an officer for several of those years, said Larry Garrett, partner and producer at eKids Film and Monkjack Productions in Kansas City. Our big challenge is that there is no full-time office in Kansas City to coordinate activities and work with out-of-town producers on permits and locations, let alone chase new business.
Garrett sees these obstacles in his own business.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, I have shot a half-dozen times in California, he said. I would love to shoot here, but its a challenge from a tax-incentive perspective. I have spent time with both legislatures. If it is bricks-and-mortar, it makes sense to them. They are much less likely to spend money on projects.
Arguments can be made on both sides in the current sluggish economy, and there is not a lot of hard data on either side. However, a study recently commissioned by the MPAA and conducted by Ernst & Young found potential benefits.
The economic benefits to residents extend beyond the production activities themselves and include increased activity by suppliers to the film industry and increased consumer spending from higher incomes, says Robert Cline of Ernst & Young, who co-wrote the report Evaluating the Effectiveness of State Film Tax Credit Programs.
At the time of the study, 37 states offered incentives and generated $1.2 billion in annual tax revenues. The bottom line is that it still is possible to make major motion pictures without state incentives but it can be much more difficult.
Of course, the primary issue producers consider in choosing where to conduct principal photography is having locations that will work best from a creative standpoint, Moore said. But all other things being equal, saving money can be a determining factor.
Full speed ahead
Tax issues aside, much of the local film industry is thriving, primarily on commercial and corporate work. Newer platforms such as the Internet and cellphones also are creating opportunities.
Kansas City relies heavily on commercials, Young said. My work is about 80 percent commercials, and then I sprinkle in some film and TV work, primarily reality shows. I was fortunate enough to work on a recent project that the History Channel shot in Topeka.
Young, like many filmmakers who rely on commercial business to pay the bills, works on other his creative projects on the side.
Other companies are on the radar of West Coast producers. Branit FX in the Crossroads is a go-to source for special effects for Hollywood movies and television shows. Trinity Animation in Lees Summit creates environmental animation for the hit cable series Archer and the new series Chozen. Kevin Wilmott, who teaches film at the University of Kansas, made C.S.A: The Confederate State of America, which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.
Brad Burrow, owner of Real Media in Overland Park, has acquired the life rights to a former chauffeur for Yasser Arafat, which he is developing into a feature film.
I would love for Real Media to become a hub for independent filmmaking in the area, he said. We want to be a place where people can get their film made, from concept to completion. We have all of the tools in this area to accommodate major film productions.
It will take a concerted effort by everyone in the industry, a collation of people who can sell what we have to others, but its pretty amazing how many production and animation companies are here and what we have to offer logistically.
Local leaders need only to look east to Columbia, Mo., for inspiration. Many consider the citys annual True/False Film Festival, founded in 2004, to now be the No. 1 documentary film festival in the world. Rigby thinks Kansas City can build a similar reputation in the broader category of digital storytelling.
We all believe that this is our future, he said. Digital storytelling is the new medium for not only feature films but for online video and many other aspects of life. We would like to be known nationally as a home of digital storytelling, with artists from all types of media working together.
Shipp agreed. The long-range goal is for Kansas City to become known as the place for making short films, he said. We want Kansas City to be to short film what Austin is to music.
And with the right incentives, Young believes it can become a center for movie production. The infrastructure is in place, he said. Im 27 years old, and in my lifetime, I would like to see feature films being made here.
Crowdfunding: A new revenue stream for filmmakers
Online crowdfunding sources such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter give independent filmmakers a more pleasant alternative to hitting up long-lost friends and relatives for financing while maxing out their credit cards.
Kickstarter made headlines when fans of the television show Veronica Mars contributed more than $5 million to produce a feature film. Bryce Young used a successful fan campaign to raise a more modest $12,000 for his Web-based series Withered World ( www.witheredworld.tv). The series features short films by local filmmakers and actors on the theme of the worlds last day.
I looked at Indiegogo, but I preferred Kickstarter, because its all or nothing, he said. It was like the longest roller-coaster ride of my life. On some days, nothing came in. We promoted it on social media and told everyone possible. For a $10 donation, they could suggest a name for the series, which we voted on later.
Crowdfunding is not for the faint of heart. We were $5,000 short with two days left to go, and we got the final funding in the last 45 minutes, Young said. Now Id like to pursue season two of the series using Kickstarter.
Jerry Harrington also is relying on Kickstarter to raise funds to convert the Tivoli in Westport from film to digital projection. His campaign, called Go Digital or Go Dark, will end on Dec. 12.
Industry has deep local roots
Kansas City has played a big role in movie production, distribution and exhibition almost since Thomas Edison invented the film projector.
Butch Rigby, owner of the Screenland Theaters, also is a film history buff. He is active in local film groups and founded Thank You Walt Disney to help preserve the local building where Mickey Mouse was created.
Walt Disney, of course, had his first studio here, he said. Laugh-o-Gram made cartoons that primarily were distributed regionally but also across the country.
In 1931, Forrest Calvin started the Calvin Co., which would become one of the largest industrial film producers in the nation and train a strong roster of film talent. Robert Altman, who would go on to direct such films as M*A*S*H and Nashville, got his start at Calvin.
We also have been home to Durwood Theaters (now AMC), Dickinson and Commonwealth Theaters, Rigby said. Film Row was home to major studio distribution of film prints. Our contribution has been pretty substantial.
Except, perhaps, in making a blockbuster feature.
Our history has been that while several feature films have been made here, none was particularly successful, he said Ang Lees Ride with the Devil is an excellent film, but unfortunately not many people saw it.