Monday, November 6, 2023

Economic impact of local productions - Symposium Reflections - Part III

How much of an impact can a film project have on the local economy?

The Motion Picture Association of Utah (MPAU) commissioned an Economic Impact Study of Utah’s film industry, emphasizing the benefits of the state’s Motion Picture Incentive Program (MPIP)—colloquially referred to as the “film incentive.” The MPAU summarized the study in an explainer video.

In short, the state—through the Utah Film Commission—invites filmmakers worldwide to produce their movies and series in Utah by highlighting local resources such as unique filming locations, support services, experienced crew members and actors, etc. The film incentive—a 25% rebate—is available to qualifying productions that spend a defined amount of their production budget within the state. For example, if a film production spends $1,000,000 in Utah—a claim that has to be verified by a third-party audit—they may receive a rebate of up to $250,000.

The impact of money spent on film and television production in Utah is not limited to the local film industry; it’s also advantageous for ancillary industries and sectors as well. Fees for location permits benefit municipal, county, and state governments. Hiring local crew members and actors, catering and vehicle rental, hotel accommodations, renting equipment, and studio space benefit local businesses, enabling them to pay their employees. Employees pay local taxes; they buy groceries and pay for their housing and transportation, and myriad goods and services for their personal needs, benefiting even more local businesses, who have their own payrolls to meet. They may not even realize that the film industry’s economic impact also works to their advantage.

This begs a more specific question: How much do film projects by local filmmakers affect the local economy?

The answer depends on whether or not—and to what degree—those local filmmakers understand and accept that the business of filmmaking cannot be separated from the art form.

As I’ve previously discussed, in the Venn diagram showing how creative industries and their adjacent communities overlap, local filmmakers may find themselves in one of three archetypical roles: Industry Professionals, Working Amateurs, and Quasi-professionals.

There are indeed a number of Utah-based film industry professionals. They understand and respect that filmmaking is as much a business venture as it is one of artistic expression. They have established effective and sustainable business models. They understand that prioritizing people with fair compensation is essential to creating a quality film that can see a return on investment. One important characteristic they all share is knowing that no one person can do it all. They know their professional strengths, have the integrity to acknowledge their limitations and respect the varied, complementary talents of those they work with, trusting them to do the same. They embrace the standards and best practices of the industry, maintaining due diligence through all stages of production and effectively managing assets and required deliverables from concept to distribution. This is what professional industry filmmakers do: employing themselves and others, doing their part to sustain the industry, and making a quantifiable difference in the economic landscape.

The working amateurs are those filmmakers who have managed to corner a niche within the local market that’s technically part of the larger industry, embracing business models with a modicum of sustainability—at least for those above the line. Their priorities are in the saleability of the finished product with a maximum return on a miserly investment. They don’t embrace industry standards so much as meet minimal requirements. Best practices will almost always be substituted with whatever they can get away with legally, if not ethically. If a loophole will save them money on production, they’ll find it and exploit it. They understand the business well enough to know that a mediocre film—with a built-in, albeit less discerning, audience—that’s done its due diligence has a better chance at distribution and profitability than an otherwise flawless work of art that can’t produce a chain of title, signed contracts, and/or other deliverables that reputable distributors will ask for.

Quasi-professionals are well-versed in the jargon associated with their craft. They take themselves—if not the art form—very seriously, an unfortunate and potentially volatile combination of the Dunning-Kruger effect and unchecked narcissism run amok. More often than not, the responsibility for the unsaleable nature of many local productions—I’ll refer to them hereinafter as “community films”—rests squarely with quasi-professional community filmmakers. Having never let go of amateur thinking, they prioritize the completion of a film over its distribution, assuming that the completed project will be so good that it will sell itself—grossly underestimating the importance of basic business planning and the necessity of due diligence. They are so focused on getting to say “That’s a wrap” to the applause of an exhausted and under-compensated crew that every decision they make leading up to that point is rooted in a scarcity mentality. Problems that can easily be avoided by not starting preproduction until proper funding is in place are simply dealt with along the way. Lacking any practical means to hire the professionals needed to do the job right, they cut corners just to get the job done, starting—most often—by requiring most of their cast and crew to waive or defer payment and convincing those above-the-line to accept rates that aren’t just below industry standards but even fail to meet the federal minimum wage.

Quasi-professionals like to refer to themselves as “in the industry” because they sincerely believe that they are. Actual film industry professionals may beg to differ. Finished “community films” exist only on the outer-most fringes of the film industry—assuming someone remembered to create IMDb entries for them, as promised to many a cast and crew, in lieu of a paycheck. This speaks to the economic impact of such projects; there is none—people can’t pay rent or buy groceries with deferred salaries.

Despite the excitement they tend to engender in the local film community—I don’t think community films actually benefit anyone. To be frank, I think that they do more harm than good. Exploited actors and crew are prevented from learning the actual value of their time and talent. They become so accustomed to “donating” or underbidding their services and paying the “passion tax” that when they’re presented with an offer that industry veterans would scoff at, they accept it without question or even any negotiating on their behalf by their so-called “agents”—because 15% of a lousy offer is still better than 15% of a client’s “experience” and IMDb credit. This undermines the income potential for other local actors and crew. A desperate labor market attracts predatory employers. While some may be quick to point fingers at incentivized productions hiring local background talent for less than half of what SAG-AFTRA deems as an acceptable minimum day rate, some Utah-based producers, including the working amateurs described above, also exploit that desperation. While it might be good for their bottom line in the short term, the practice is simply not sustainable.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and—especially where guest posts are concerned—do not necessarily reflect the official policies and/or practice of the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, its officers and/or associates.