Spokane Journal of Business

Putting Spokane on the ‘big screen’

Movies filmed here provide boost to businesses, help market area

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Spokanes small, yet thriving film industry is nowhere near as big as Hollywoods, but is pouring a substantial amount of money into the regions economy.

Millions of dollars are spent to produce movies here each year, though little of it by major studios, and much of that money stays in the Spokane area through expenditures on labor, lodging, meals, car and equipment rentals, and shopping. Meanwhile, such films also help market the community to an international audience, which can result in more economic-development opportunities in the future, film-industry promoters assert.

For example, North by Northwest Productions Inc., a Spokane-based production company, currently is filming a movie here to be called Norman. Roughly 85 percent of the budget for that movie will be spent in Spokane, says Rich Cowan, the companys president. Budgets for the companys biggest motion pictures range between $1 million and $5 million, he says.

Theyre not blockbusters, but theres demand for movies like this, and you get a bang for your buck in terms of the economic impact, Cowan says. Its good for the economy because its mostly money coming from outside the state and in many cases outside the country.

North by Northwest makes its own movies, helps others make movies, and also does TV commercials and corporate videos. It has roughly 40 employees and also uses contract labor. Many of its clients are from outside the area, from places such as Los Angeles and Germany, he says.

Norman, which Cowan describes as a dark comedy, is the third movie North by Northwest has filmed here this year. The other two are Finding Bliss and Alicias Book. The company likely will shoot at least two more movies before the credits roll on 2008, he says. In recent years, it has boosted its production volume to four or five movies a year to keep its crew working year-round, he says. Prior to that, the company made about three films a year. In all, it has made roughly 30 films, he says.

Some of the highest-profile movies that have been filmed here over the years include the comedy Benny & Joon, the coming of age film Vision Quest, and the natural disaster movie Dantes Peak. None, however, has garnered the kind of region-boosting acclaim that, for example, Sleepless in Seattle did for Seattle.

A few of North by Northwests recent movies have included Mozart and the Whale, End Game, and Home of the Brave. Upwards of 80 people typically are involved in a movie shoot, and many of the crew members are North by Northwests employees, Cowan says. The balance primarily are actors, producers, and directors from outside the area who live here during shoots, which can last 20 to 35 days, he says.

Within the past year, people involved in North by Northwests movies have occupied 7,000 room-nights in Spokane-area hotels, says Harry Sladich, president and CEO of the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. That volume is equivalent to what two large conventions would generate, he says.

One of the main hotels that North by Northwest uses is the Doubletree Hotel Spokane-City Center, at 322 N. Spokane Falls Court. Last year, the company generated 1,200 room-nights at the hotel and so far this year it has generated nearly 900 room-nights, says Mike McLeod, the hotels general manager. That translates into $100,000 in revenues for the hotel in 2007 and $65,000 in revenues this year, not including money spent in the hotels restaurants, he says.

Weve had a great relationship with North by Northwest, McLeod says. Its been a good amount of business for us.

St. Louis-based Enterprise Rent-A-Car Co.s offices here also have benefited from films that have been shot in Spokane, says Rhonda Betteridge, a Spokane-based corporate account manager. Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which has been working with North by Northwest for the past six years, has rented vehicles used in the movies as well as in the transportation of the cast and crew, she says.

They have provided us with a steady source of revenue, Betteridge says.

Reflections Kaffee Haus & Eatery, a caf downtown that recently started providing catering services to North by Northwest, expects a big revenue increase from its budding relationship with the production company, says co-owner Nancy Claussen. The arrangement provides Reflections with an extra 50 to 75 customers a day for breakfast and lunch five days a week, she says.

Its just a great boost for us, Claussen says.

In addition to costs such as food, lodging, and transportation, North by Northwest also rents equipment such as scissor lifts and boom lifts and canopies for its eating area, and buys office supplies and hardware and lumber from various Spokane vendors for use in constructing movie sets, he says.

The idea is to keep it local, he says. We want to make sure that a huge percentage of the budget will stay in the area.

IncentiveCowan asserts that North by Northwest wouldnt be able to land clients without funding from WashingtonFilmWorks, a Seattle-based nonprofit that administers funds from the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program, which was created by the Washington Legislature in 2006. The funds cover up to 20 percent of production companies in-state expenditures, up to $1 million per project, its Web site says. WashingtonFilmWorks can collect up to $3.5 million in funds a year, which it obtains from businesses that count their contributions as a credit against their business-and-occupation tax payments.

Legislators created the competitiveness program to help the states film and video industry compete with other states and Canada, many of which provide some form of tax relief for film producers. In the winter of 2007, North by Northwest became the programs first funding recipient, for its movie, The Holidays. Since then, the company has received assistance for five more films, including Norman. For those movies, it has spent roughly $7.6 million within the state, and has received nearly $2.9 million in funding assistance, according to a project summary report by WashingtonFilmWorks. One of its upcoming films, LadyKiller, which also will be shot here, has been approved to receive roughly $324,000 in funds.

The incentive money is crucial in getting the work, Cowan says. That wasnt the case three years ago, but the majority of states now have very powerful incentives.

WashingtonFilmWorks has funded a total of 12 film and video productions, and has approved funding for three more. Amy Lillard Dee, the nonprofits executive director, says that so far North by Northwest has been the only Spokane-area company to receive funds, but adds that other filmmakers here, whom she declines to name, are working on starting up projects that could receive funding assistance.

Some production companies here include Corner Booth Productions Inc., I.L.F. Media Productions, Hamilton Photography & Film Co., Mortimore Productions Inc., and Digital Itch.

Good locationWhile WashingtonFilmWorks incentive is smaller than those offered in some other states, were on a level playing field, and we can bring in the work because Spokane is a very good place to shoot a film, Cowan says.

Spokanes blend of rural and urban areas, as well as the diversity of the architecture of its downtown buildings, makes it an attractive place to shoot a film, he says. In addition, Spokane International Airport is a short drive from downtown and offers direct flights to Los Angeles, he says.

Other bonuses include a low cost of living, relatively little traffic congestion, and good cooperation from government officials, business owners, and residents, he says. For instance, earlier this spring, the company needed to shut down Washington Street downtown to shoot scenes for Alicias Book, an action movie starring Christian Slater. The permit application process with the city went smoothly, and commuters were cooperative, he says.

We hear from people involved in these productions that its easy to work here, the CVBs Sladich says. Getting a street closed down in Seattle is a lot more difficult.

Sladich says that in addition to bringing money into the region, films also raise Spokanes profile, both in terms of the viewers who see the movies and the actors who star in them. Sladich says he writes letters to the stars of each movie that include information about the Spokane community, such as real estate investment opportunities. In that letter, he offers to coordinate a tour of the area for them.

These visitors are spending money in the community and getting to see the community in a great light, he says. Anything that shows Spokane in a good light and gets people aware of our community is a home run for us in terms of marketing the region.

Sladich, who sits on WashingtonFilmWorks board of directors, traveled to Seattle this week to talk with a marketing company about ways to promote the state and its incentive program to filmmakers. The fund has more money available than it does qualified applicants, so WashingtonFilmWorks board members are trying to come up with ways to get the word out about the incentive and broaden the net in terms of its applicant base, he says.

The CVB also is the Spokane liaison for the Washington state Film Office, which helps recruit film projects. For the past four years, the CVB has operated a Web site, www.filminspokane.com, which it enhanced significantly last year, Sladich says.

The Web site promotes the Spokane region to filmmakers, provides information on film and video production services here, and helps connect potential clients with Spokane companies such as North by Northwest and Corner Booth Productions, he says.

Over the last decade, the state film office has brought in more than $160 million in production spending and created more than 20,000 local temporary jobs statewide, its Web site claims. In addition to recruiting projects, it helps with pre-production of films, including location scouting and serving as a liaison between production companies, businesses, and government agencies.

Contact Emily Proffitt at (509) 344-1265 or via e-mail at emilyp@spokanejournal.com.

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