Kansas City’s government-sponsored film office faded to black more than a decade ago.
But thanks to a tiny line item in the new municipal budget, members of Kansas City’s film community hope there will be a lot more “lights, camera, action” to come.
“It’s rare that a town the size of Kansas City does not have some type of film office,” said Patti Broyles Harper, who was the city’s full-time film office director from 1994 to 2002. “So the fact that the city has recognized that and is reinstating it is wonderful.”
The city budget, which takes effect May 1, provides $50,000 in tourism tax dollars that will be matched by $50,000 from the Convention and Visitors Association. That’s enough to reopen the office with a full-time director — a welcome and crucial move, advocates say, to give Kansas City a foot in the door for movies, commercials, animation, reality TV and more.
“We desperately need somebody to be doing this job,” said Heather Laird, chairwoman of the Greater Kansas City Film Commission, a volunteer group that promotes the work of major and independent film companies and media production teams.
Laird, a veteran casting director in Kansas City, said she knows of at least two instances in the past year in which Kansas City lost out on lucrative opportunities because it didn’t have a full-time film officer.
She said the NBC show “America’s Got Talent” was interested in coming to Kansas City, but no one from the volunteer film commission had the time to cultivate that lead. Laird said it could have pumped $500,000 into the local economy.
An even bigger missed opportunity involved the $12 million feature film “The Good Lie,” due out later this year. The movie, which stars Reese Witherspoon, is about some Lost Boys of Sudan who resettled in Kansas City. But it was filmed in Atlanta.
Laird said that when film commission members learned about the movie’s connection to Kansas City, they tried desperately to get the filming here, but it was too late. She said a full-time film officer would have known about the production earlier and possibly could have lured it to Kansas City.
Broyles Harper said that during her seven years as film office director, she promoted the Kansas City region to the Los Angeles and New York film industries and assisted production companies on location in Kansas City. In that period, she said, the office brought in more than $80 million to the economy and put Kansas City on the map with HBO’s Emmy-winning “Truman,” Robert Altman’s “Kansas City” and Ang Lee’s “Ride With the Devil.”
But the office was a casualty of budget cuts in 2002. It limped along with partial funding from the Convention and Visitors Association before vanishing about two years later.
Laird and other members of Kansas City’s robust film and production community say they tried to pick up the slack as volunteers, but it wasn’t the same.
“The film office was my cellphone. You never really knew when those calls were coming,” said Russ Hadley, who several years ago was chairman of the film commission.
Hadley said people called wanting information about locations, crews, regulations or other aspects of doing a production in Kansas City. He helped them as much as he could, but he had his own production company to run.
“I did my best to steer them in the right direction, but I wasn’t able to follow up because I was busy,” he said.
Film commission member Larry Garrett, a Kansas City-based writer and producer, said the commission never stopped agitating for a professionally staffed film office. The cause finally gained traction through the Mayor’s Task Force on the Arts, which issued a report in December pointing out that the arts, including film and media production, employ tens of thousands of workers and pump millions of dollars into the local economy.
The task force called for greater leadership and public funding, and Mayor Sly James agreed the film office was one of the first initiatives that should be resurrected.
“I believe there’s economic development to be had there,” James said in an interview. “There’s a lot of other things you can do besides movies. There’s filming of commercials, infomercials, film digital strategies that we haven’t taken advantage of because we have not been set up to do so.”
Garrett and others acknowledge the industry has evolved, and the film office’s function probably will be different from what it was 12 years ago. They caution that reopening the film office does not mean Kansas City will become a new Hollywood on the prairie.
“That whole business has changed,” Garrett said, noting that big-budget films chase tax credits, which neither Kansas nor Missouri has.
But the tax-credits deficit isn’t fatal. Digital technology has led to an explosion of new media, and growth in both television and commercial production.
The film commission’s pitch for the new office pointed out the greater Kansas City area already has more than 40,000 film and production workers and predicted that could grow 10 percent to 15 percent in the next few years with digital storytelling. The commission calculated that the industry pumped $120 million into the local economy in 2012 and said that could grow to $150 million with the right promotion and coordination.
The film commission predicted a relatively quick return on investment for even a modestly funded film office. A studio-based film can spend $250,000 per day in a local economy, and a large national or international television commercial can generate local spending of up to $1 million in less than two weeks, the commission said.
It’s unclear how quickly the office can be set up and staffed, but Garrett said it should happen as quickly as possible, and he can already think of people who would be ideal for the job.
The new office, he said, could market Kansas City as a shooting location, identify local crews and expertise for out-of-towners to use, scout non-production vendors and support services, assist productions with required permits and paperwork, and act as a liaison with city offices and private businesses.
Nathan Kincaid, a 33-year-old downtown Kansas City resident whose short film “Martini Lunch” will play Thursday at the Kansas City FilmFest, said he could already envision how useful a film office might be. Kincaid said his film, which stars former Mayor Charles Wheeler, was shot at the Savoy Hotel and inside the old federal courthouse.
But Kincaid had to scout locations himself, track down the owners and get permission to shoot. If he were from out of town or didn’t know Kansas City, it wouldn’t even be on his radar.
“Hopefully, whoever they appoint is a local person who knows all the cool things that make Kansas City unique,” he said. “These producers come into town, they want to do as little work as possible.”
While many other cities have film offices, and the environment is very competitive, Kansas City film advocates said the city has a lot going for it, and the center of gravity is shifting from Southern California.
Teri Rogers, CEO of Hint, a digital design and production center in the Crossroads Arts District, said her company has created a reality show division and has an agent in Los Angeles.
“The key reason they wanted to represent us and decided to work with us was because we were from the Midwest,” Rogers said. “They want to start generating content in the middle of America.”
She said that when a reality show or any other production company is scouting locations, a film office could be vital to selling them on Kansas City.
Laird said she’s convinced plenty of promising leads already exist for a film officer to pursue.
“I hope that our film commissioner is overwhelmed with leads to follow up on, and people to wine and dine and lure to our city,” she said. “The work is there. It’s a matter of reeling it in.”