Layoffs at state film office will leave revenue deficit


POSTED: Sunday, August 23, 2009

When layoff notices circulated to nearly 1,100 state workers recently, the entire four-person Hawaii Film Office was included. Pending labor negotiations, people will be out of work Nov. 13.

So where would that leave the film industry in Hawaii? Because, really, what does the film office do?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

Since 1978, when it opened, the film office has courted potential productions and answered questions about everything from tax credits to culture. Essentially, the office attracts business and takes care of production companies when they arrive. Duties are wide-ranging, affecting many sectors of the economy, including helping to procure caterers, technicians, rental cars and hotel rooms (5,000 room nights each for the mid-range “;Forgetting Sarah Marshall”; and “;Tempest”; productions, for example), crew, talent and more. Securing deals that have brought between $150 million and $200 million in income to the state sounds like a bargain when the office runs on an annual budget of a little more than $454,000. And how do you calibrate the economic impact of the constant, inherent advertising shows like “;Lost”; provide?

Since 1968, Hawaii has provided the setting for 23 major TV series, and more than 700 episodes of other major shows that typically film in Los Angeles. And that doesn't include the feature films. In addition to “;Lost,”; about to start its sixth and final season, the last two years brought major productions to every island, including “;Tropic Thunder”; (Kauai), Indiana Jones”; (Hawaii island), “;Forgetting Sarah Marshall”; (Oahu), “;Pirates of the Caribbean”; (Maui, Molokai) and “;The Tempest”; (Lanai, Hawaii island).

“;(Hawaii State Film Commissioner) Donne Dawson was indispensable to us during the three years of shooting our film 'Morning Light' in the islands,”; executive producer Leslie DeMeuse wrote in an e-mail response to the news. “;She was our main resource for production contacts and logistics. She also educated us on all the financial advantages of doing business here in Hawaii, including the Hawaii state film tax credit.

“;She was the one who convinced us to shoot our movie here in the first place. We assumed it would be too expensive, but she firmly pointed out how we could actually reduce our production expenses by shooting in the islands ... not to mention improve the quality of our production because of all the scenic locations and production people with the expertise of shooting here.”;

“;Morning Light”; executive producer Roy Disney agreed: “;Without Donne, we might well have made a decision to shoot on the mainland.”;

The potential abolishment of the office is already affecting business.

“;Word has gotten back to constituents in Los Angeles,”; Dawson said. “;They are going to think twice when they realize the film office won't be there to support them.”;

Despite the infrastructure available here, Hawaii has plenty of competition and it's easy for production companies to go elsewhere. The recently released “;Perfect Getaway,”; for instance, is set on Kauai, but was shot primarily in Puerto Rico, where the tax credits are reportedly larger.

“;If we were to be contemplating another production here in Hawaii, and if there were no longer a film office, we would have a far more difficult time,”; Disney continued. “;Closing it would be the ultimate in false economies.”;

In addition to negotiating details with the state—parking a wide body airplane on a public beach doesn't just happen—and administering tax credits, processing nearly 1,000 filming permits each year is another component of the staff's responsibilities, as is playing watchdog for Hawaii's culture and environment. Film and TV companies don't travel lightly. Who teaches them respect for the culture? Who makes sure they leave Makapuu cleaner than they found it?

And, there's more than just money at stake. It's also about perception, and those effects are too broad to be calculated in economic analyses. As DeMeuse and Disney noted, “;Because of our positive experience doing business here in Hawaii, we have decided to make Hawaii our personal home base as well as our production and studio base.”;