Donne Dawson


POSTED: Friday, August 28, 2009

Hawaii state film commissioner Donne Dawson and her staff are as busy as ever, working to bring movie, TV and commercial crews to Hawaii even as the clock ticks toward Nov. 13. That's the day four of the five are scheduled to lose their jobs to the state government's fiscal crisis—even though the work they do helps bring millions of dollars to Hawaii every year.

The Honolulu-born Dawson, 48, a La Pietra and Cal State-Sacramento grad who has held the post since 2001, retains her natural optimism amid the stress, displaying the even-keeled personality admirers say makes her a natural for the high-stakes job.

She's quick to redirect praise and expressions of concern to the rest of her staff, crediting her native Hawaiian culture for helping her maintain perspective as she finds her career in limbo.

“;Work is really busy, so that helps, too,”; said Dawson.

QUESTION: What will the state lose if the film office is shut down?

ANSWER: I think most immediately it would do irreparable damage to its hard-won reputation as a film-friendly location, something that we have been focused on developing for the 30 years that this office has been around. ... The film industry right now is at its most competitive level globally in the history of this industry, where financial and other incentives abound all over the world. So the timing of it, should it happen, couldn't be worse.

Q: What's a typical day like?

A: Every day we are processing film permits and tax credit applications, but that is all sandwiched in between phone calls and e-mails dealing with very technical questions productions have about where they can shoot, what they can shoot, asking about any incentives the state offers ... Film permits are required any time you are shooting on public land ... There are jurisdictional issues (among the federal, state and county governments) and we help the productions navigate the jurisdictions and make them aware of cultural, environmental and neighborhood sensitivities in any given location ... That's for productions that are thinking about shooting here, are scouting to shoot here or are on the ground and engaged in any stage of production ... If there's any sort of a problem, which oftentimes there is, we have to mitigate the problem or put out the fire.

Q: If each county has a film office, isn't the state office duplicative?

A: Absolutely not. There are legal and jurisdictional reasons for having both. ... Not to mention that the county film offices are all one-person operations, so even if it was legally possible, there's simply too much to do ... Plus, the state film office has the statutory mandate to perform the consolidated permitting process. It's the only one of its kind in the country, where we are a centralized coordinating agency that acts as a liaison for all of the state agencies that have jurisdiction for the land (and ocean resources) that productions want to use ... That really expedites the process and makes Hawaii a more attractive location.

Q: Name a Hawaii project that would not have happened if not for the film office.

A: “;Lost”; wouldn't have happened! If we hadn't gotten permission to park that plane on a beach for several months, which was a critical element to the story, and a logistical nightmare because they had to make some very quick decisions and we had to react accordingly. ... They were on their way to Australia. We had to procure permission for them to use that beach and make accommodations for public access. We had to make that happen for them and it was very challenging and complicated but we did it. And “;Lost”; has become a megahit ... and here they are engaged in their sixth and final season and they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Hawaii. So that was a big one.

Q: Why do you think the film office is being targeted?

A: I don't know how to answer that, in terms of the word targeted, because that assumes that we have been targeted when there are a lot of other state employees that are being affected because of the state's fiscal crisis.

Q: I use the word targeted because your office is being eliminated when everyone seems to agree that it generates revenue.

A: Maybe there's a false sense that our function can be served some other way. But actually it can't. The complexity of the work that we do, and we haven't even touched on the tax credits, requires a very specific skill set and a working knowledge of the film industry ... It's not something that one person can do. There's institutional knowledge contained in this office that is very critical to the execution of the work ... I understand that times are tight, but in order to generate the $150 million to $200 million a year in direct expenditures in the state that the state film office helps generate, well, there is a tremendous amount of work that goes into that.

Q: How much is budgeted for the film office?

A: Our current budget is about $450,000. That is all-inclusive, to run this office, including salaries, plus the operation and maintenance of the Diamond Head studio.

Q: How many employees are there?

A: The studio manager out at Diamond Head, and the four of us in this office. ... The four people here are all on the layoff list; the only one who's not is the studio manager.

Q: Could it be privatized? Could you do the same thing as a private consultant?

A: It's possible, but I think one of the things to keep in mind is that what makes us most effective is our situation within the government. The statutory mandate for both film permits and tax credits are tied to the Department (of Business, Economic Development and Tourism) and by extension this office.

Q: What about putting the film office under the auspices of the Hawaii Tourism Authority?

A: That was one of the outcomes of this past legislative session and I think that it could have worked very effectively. ... Productions are by-and-large high-spending tourists, they feed into tourism-related businesses and they provide incredibly valuable exposure for the tourism industry when commercials, television shows and movies are shown worldwide. ... (Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed the measure passed by the Legislature that would have transferred the film office to the HTA.)

Q: “;Lost”; is in its final season and now the film office is on the chopping block. What are the prospects for Hawaii?

A: As luck would have it, we are inundated right now with numerous projects that are either coming to Hawaii or contemplating coming ... I can't say the names right now but they are significant projects with significant talent attached and we need to stay focused on getting those projects here. One of those is a potential series. We do have this (layoff) issue looming. We are going to keep hoping that we can have a good resolution before Nov. 13. But we've got a job to do, and we're going to keep doing our job and keep communicating how valuable this industry is to the state of Hawaii. The film industry should be viewed as part of the solution to the economic crisis ... I would say conservatively that the potential work that is knocking on our door right now could bring in $100 million to Hawaii in the next 12 months. We need that work and we're going to do everything we can do to get it here, despite the uncertainty of our situation.