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Ohio's growing film industry shows Hollywood glitter isn't all that counts

On the set of "25 Hill" Photos Submitted
On the set of "25 Hill" Photos Submitted

Producer Chris Aronoff brought palm trees to Akron this past spring in order to make filming locations for his new movie about the soapbox derby -- "25 Hill" -- appear to be in California, where the storyline is set.

"It's kind of the opposite of how we would normally do it," he says. "Usually we film in California and make it look like somewhere else."

The switch is a sign of the changing times in the moviemaking industry. A business that was once completely dominated by studios in Hollywood has undergone a radical makeover in recent years due to digital photography, independent filmmakers and financial lures by states and even foreign countries that have given California a run for its money in holding onto the industry it was known for.

Tempting moviemakers to leave Hollywood and produce their films on location in other states and countries has become competitive sport among governments looking to enhance their own economies and increase opportunities for employment.

Ohio jumped onto the playing field last year when the state enacted a refundable tax credit of up to $5 million per movie, 35 percent of wages for Ohio cast and crew and 25 percent for non-resident wage and non-wage expenditures. It is capped at $30 million over 2010 and 2011.

The new incentives have already caught the attention of filmmakers, says Jeremy Henthorn, director of the Ohio Film Office.

This year, expenditures in the state from film production are projected to be more than $31 million. That's a significant increase over previous years before the tax credit was enacted.

Six film projects are under way in Ohio, one each in Cincinnati and Akron, and four in Cleveland.

"Every month the number of inquiries increases about new movies being made here," says Henthorn. "Before, you might see a few movies every couple of years."

At least 39 states offer moviemaking tax incentives. Michigan is one of those states, and it has seen tremendous success from its efforts to bring in the movie industry.

Ken Droz, communications consultant to the Michigan Film Office, says aggressive incentives -- up to 42 percent for in-state expenditures -- the state passed two years ago have made a big impact.

"We had two to three projects per year before the tax credits (enacted in 2008)," says Droz. "We had 35 projects in 2008 worth $125 million and 52 projects in 2009 worth $224 million after the tax credits."

Michigan has added roughly 4,000 film crew jobs and is re-purposing a former auto production plant in Pontiac as a new film studio.

"None of this would be happening without the tax credits," he says. "We're told they are some of the most generous."

One of the most exciting consequences of the new movie industry presence in the state, adds Droz, is the retention of young college graduates and the return of young professionals who had left to find work elsewhere.

"I'm being told all the time about stories of people moving back," he says. "It's pretty fascinating.

"Initially, the impetus was to get people employed," he adds. "But this has created a whole new creative class here."

Henthorn says Ohio wants to see similar results with its new incentives.

"We encourage the filmmakers to spend money in Ohio and use Ohio employees," he says. "We've got a lot of producers who live in the state and they want to stay here. This gives them more reason to do so.

"Honestly, my goal is to see a permanent industry in Ohio," he says. "We want to create roots in the state. These jobs are appealing to younger workers and we want to keep those college graduates and young professionals."

Cincinnati resident and independent film producer Jim Amatulli, whose film "Life After" is in production in Cincinnati, says increasing financial pressure on filmmakers is the reason tax credits are so important now.

"The reality is filmmaking is a risky business," he says. "Tax incentives can help you get a return on your investment. It can make a big difference."

Amatulli says he would also like to see the number of trained film professionals increase in Ohio.

Small independent films with budgets under $10 million are most likely to hire local production crews and make their entire picture in the state, he adds.

Large "blockbuster" movie productions usually bring along their own crews from out of state and don't film the entire movie here, he says. While they still add to the economy by eating, sleeping and shopping here, it doesn't bring in permanent new jobs.

Big movies do bring in tourists, however, says Kristen Irwin, director of the Greater Cincinnati Film Commission , and that is a side benefit to any local film location.

Irwin points to the corn field in Iowa featured in the popular motion picture, "Field of Dreams." After the release of the movie, tourists flocked to the location, which previously would have been unheard of.

The bottom line, she says, is that moviemaking is big business and Ohio and its communities should be as competitive as possible to attract it.

"Film production is an economic development tool that cities can't ignore," she says. "When jobs are needed this is too important to pass up."

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