‘Lights! Camera! Joystick!’
In House Bill 99, Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, is asking Utah’s film industry to switch to "two-player" mode with its incentives program.
The bill, which is currently under debate as HB 99 Substitute, would add "digital media" to the definition of those that qualify for tax rebates under the Motion Pictures Incentive Fund the program set up to attract more movie and television creators to film or work in Utah. The industry is important to Summit County home to the Sundance Film Festival, several popular filming locations, and possibly Raleigh Studios in the future.
The given definition of digital media includes video games and other interactive software both for education and entertainment.
Including "digital media" with the film industry is only natural considering the evolution of movies and television, said Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission. Much of what goes onscreen is produced inside a computer now, he said.
It makes sense to potentially share the incentives fund with video-game and educational-software producers because they’re essentially doing the same things, and the film industry now considers themed games an important part of its business plans, explained Gary Harter, managing director of business creation for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED).
Disney Interactive Studios, for example, owns Avalanche Software in Salt Lake City. Disney movies are filmed in Utah, and Disney video games are made here, too.
Using the same fund to entice both industries to the state is already being done in 21 other states, Harter said.
Successful video games and their offshoots generate profits for years, he added. Utah companies are already producing some of America’s favorites, like "Sims."
If the bill is passed, Moore is not anticipating any changes to the film office. The incentive will be marketed by GOED, which will also approve the applications as it does for the tourism and business-development incentive funds.
This idea was proposed by the "interactive digital media" industry, and if it works, why complicate the incentives process? Harter asked.
One reason is the money may run out. The fund is allocated by the Utah Legislature and it is a finite amount.
The first three years the fund existed it was exhausted every year, Moore said. The last three years it has almost run out.
Bryan Clifton, owner of Redman Movies and Stories, has been involved in the Utah film industry for decades. His company rents equipment to film crews. Clifton said he’s been a supporter of the incentive fund ever since Canada created one in 1979.
But when he first learned that his industry would share the fund with "interactive digital media," he said it was a "real shock."
The reason why the money hasn’t been exhausted the last three years is because the rebates rates haven’t been enough to attract business.
Utah was in the top 10 nationally for motion picture economic activity prior to 1999. Since then, the state has dropped into the bottom half and lost market share every year, he said.
Another initiative of Rep. Hughes’ bill is to increase the amount of money crews can get back from the state. That should improve demand for filming here, but potentially exhaust the money next year, Clifton said.
If the money must be shared with another existing industry that is growing quickly, it could run out fast, he added.
But that was only his initial reaction, Clifton clarified. After thinking on it awhile, he concluded it’s a good idea.
"We’ve got to find the right formula," he said. "We’re trying to solve an economic problem that affects a lot of people we’re trying to create jobs for graduating students wanting careers in this industry."
Utah has been behind the curve for 10 years, and at this point throwing money at the problem isn’t going to fix it, he said. If Utah’s film industry is propped up with rebates, it’s false economic growth. Creating a viable digital media industry here will be good for the film industry, good for universities, good for graduating students and good for the whole state, he said.
Some sacrifices will have to be made, but creating a viable economy is kind of like baking a cake the right proportion of ingredients must go into the mix, Clifton said.
Laura Mustard, corporate communications manager for video-game producer ChAIR, said she thinks the incentive will convince more companies like hers to work in Utah.
HB99S01 has passed the House and is now in the Senate.
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