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O California, Where Art Thou: Why Is the Tax Incentives Program Driving Away Indie Film?

By J. Todd Harris | Indiewire July 31, 2012 at 11:30AM

There were many reasons we chose Los Angeles, despite the fact that other states have a more accessible and robust tax credit.
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J. Todd Harris headshot
J. Todd Harris is a film producer living in Los Angeles. His credits include “Bottle Shock,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “The Family Tree” and “Miss Nobody” — all shot in California.

I just wrapped an independent movie here in Los Angeles, a musical called “Lucky Stiff” from “Jeffrey” director Christopher Ashley. It’s a pretty expensive movie by indie standards, but the experience was a joy because everything we needed was here, with the best film professionals in the world available and eager to work. Eager? Nay, thankful. If there was one overriding sentiment expressed during our just-over-five-week shoot, it was how grateful everyone on the crew was to have a movie shooting at home in Los Angeles. Like so many productions these days, it would have been incredibly easy for us not to.

There were many reasons we chose Los Angeles, despite the fact that other states have a more accessible and robust tax credit. Even though the story takes place in Brooklyn, London, Atlantic City and Monte Carlo, Los Angeles has the best resources and personnel either to replicate those locations or to build the ones that weren’t here. Also, we knew we’d be able to access local actors for short stints more easily.

Once we decided to shoot here, about six months prior to production,we immediately prepared to apply for the California Film Commission Lottery, which would defray the cost of our picture by more than $1 million — a considerable amount when making a movie financed entirely by equity. But the application due date was June 1, and our start date was June 13.

I knew the California rebate is based on a lottery system, so there were no guarantees, but imagine my astonishment when I heard that we didn’t even qualify for consideration! Why didn’t we qualify? Although the due date for applications is June 1, you can’t start your production until 30 days after, so we were too early. But then it turns out thatyou have to start shooting within six months of June 1, too. Which means, effectively, that if your movie starts shooting in California between December 1 and June 30, you’re out of luck. No Spring-set rom coms need apply!

Furious, I wrote to Amy Lemisch, who heads the California Film Commission, to articulate my dismay and displeasure. To her credit, Amy quickly called me to explain that the system isn’t perfect and that they’re looking at ways to make the lottery more fair and comprehensive (possibly two deadlines six months apart). She also mentioned that the lottery really wasn’t designed for films like ours, which had already decided to shoot in California, but to persuade productions that were on the fence. And finally, she admitted that, given California’s budget crunch, the California Film Commission was happy just to survive with its existing budget, and she didn’t dare rock the boat by asking for more or tinkering with the system.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit, J. Todd Harris, Filmmaker Toolkit: Budgets






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