Spokane Journal of Business

Film industry back from the dead as Z Nation enters fourth season

Eleventh-hour renewal of state incentive program draws cheers

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-—Daniel Schaefer
An actor made up as a zombie lounges on the set during the season-three filming of Z Nation. Filming of the fourth season of the Syfy Network show started recently.
-—Daniel Schaefer
A cameraman captures the action as the cast of Z Nation encounters both friends and foes during a fight scene from the television show’s third season. In all, the show typically has 2,000 zombie cast members each season.

The future of the film industry here looks bright, and the dead are still very much alive in the Spokane area, as crews begin shooting the fourth season of Z Nation, a show on the Syfy television network. 

The show, which began production for the new season last month, is partnering with the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture on both filming and an exhibit meant to inspire youth to pursue careers in the state’s film industry.

 Z Nation has filmed in and around the Inland Northwest since its inception in 2014, and much of the production and final editing is performed by Spokane-based North by Northwest Inc., a production company based at 903 W. Broadway.

The Syfy network’s website describes the fictitious series as being set three years after a zombie virus has infected the country, following a group of survivors as they escort a man whose blood may hold the key to curing the virus to a viral lab in California.

Rich Cowan, company partner with North by Northwest, says recent renewal of the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program, a state film production incentive that funds Z Nation and other such productions, will add stability to the show, as well as to future productions here.

“With the renewal of the incentive, there’s no doubt in my mind more opportunities will be coming to Spokane,” he says. “It’s a beautiful place to film, with great locations and good crews to work with.”

Cowan says North by Northwest currently employs about 40 people full time companywide, most of whom work here, although the company also has a production office in Boise.

“This is our fourth season helping out with filming and producing Z Nation,” he says. “Each season provides jobs for about 200 people, not counting extras.” 

In terms of direct economic impact, Cowan estimates Z Nation injects about $20 million into Spokane each season it airs.

“The great thing about this show is that 90 percent of the crew is local, living and raising families here,” he says. “And these are the kind of good, family-wage jobs with pensions and health care that we really need here in Spokane.”

While he couldn’t say for certain yet whether the company will be producing a fifth season of Z Nation, Cowan says he’s confident more productions will be coming to the area. 

“Before, there was this uncertainty and inability to really plan long term,” he says. “Now that we know we’ll have this program for another 10 years, we can do a lot more.”

Created in 2006 by the Washington state Legislature, the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program provides $3.5 million annually to qualifying projects shot in Washington. In a legislative budget agreement reached last week, the program was extended for the mentioned additional 10 years.

Amy Lillard is executive director of Washington Filmworks, a Seattle-based nonprofit that manages the state’s film and production incentive programs, and helps create economic development opportunities statewide for the film industry.

She says such programs are important because they help attract crews filming movies, TV shows, and commercials to the state that employ local labor and buy local goods.

“These programs are part of the way people finance productions now,” she says. “They’re what attract productions to our state, and without them the cast and crew are forced to bring their business elsewhere.”

While the number of “incentivized” projects varies from year to year, Lillard estimates since its start the program’s approved projects have created 17,500 jobs for Washington cast and crew members.

She says her office so far this year has received 318 calls and inquiries to its film office division and was able to convert 37 percent of those calls to business, which has led to $7.2 million of direct spending in communities across the state.

“Both the incentive program and the state film office are funded through our Legislature in Olympia, so if the program were not renewed, both services would likely have gone away,” she says. 

Lillard says Z Nation has been a priority project for Washington Filmworks because the production provides long-term consistent work for crew members.

She says each Z Nation season has been “green lit” for 12 to 15 episodes, with production usually lasting about eight months. She says in its first three seasons, the show spent an estimated $20 million on wages and benefits for Washington resident cast and crew, as well as with local businesses. 

“That $20 million represents an estimated 17 percent of the total direct spend for our organizations approved productions since 2007,” she says. She adds that jobs for production crew members usually pay an average of $35 per hour including benefits, and generate nearly $11.9 million in payroll each season.

Lillard says in its first three seasons of filming, Z Nation generated about $8.2 million in direct spending to local businesses, visiting an estimated 138 unique state businesses every week during production.

Karl Schaefer, co-creator and “showrunner” for Z Nation, says the show’s creators and crew were also pleased to hear the state had renewed the film incentive program.

“This is great news for us. Everyone worked really hard to get the Legislature to pass it, and it’s nice to see that it worked,” he says. “This allows us to plan for future shooting in Washington, with the potential to provide our crews with work for the next decade.”

Schaefer says working with the museum this season has been a longtime personal goal, not only as a fun location but as an opportunity to showcase his crew’s work.  

 “It just happened to work out, so this season, the museum will kind of be our own mini-Universal Studios,” he says. 

The museum’s new exhibit, called “Z Nation: Behind the Camera,” features costumes, props, and photography from the show, as well as displays depicting the processes behind things like set design, visual effects, and makeup.

Schaefer says he hopes young visitors who view the exhibit will take note of the stories of crew members who grew up in the area, and now have jobs working in the industry.  

“We want people to know there is a film industry here, and that there are pathways within it that lead to successful careers,” he says.

While the show will still travel to other area locations, including Hillyard, Todd’s Auto Salvage in Airway Heights, and the old Kaiser Aluminum Co. plant in Mead, Schaefer says many scenes will be shot on the museum grounds at 2316 W. First.

 “This season, we’re featuring Browne’s Addition as ‘Zona,’ a zombie-free community for billionaires,” he says.

The show already has held zombie extra auditions at the museum, and is using several locations around the property as filming sets.

Schaefer says a typical day starts at 6 a.m. and runs at least 12 hours, during which four or five larger scenes are completed. He says the show generally has 2,000 zombie cast members each season and employs about 75 extras per episode, at $90 per day plus lunch.

Looking ahead, Schaefer says he hopes to return next year to shoot season five of Z Nation, and is even considering launching a second show that would be set here.  

“We’re already negotiating a possible six episode Z Nation spin-off with Netflix,” he says. “But now that we’ve filmed this area from the apocalyptic, scary perspective, I think it might be nice to produce a new show featuring some of the prettier areas.” 

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken is the most recent addition to the Journal's news team. A poet, cat lover and antique enthusiast, LeAnn is also an Eastern Washington University alum.

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