Thursday, April 09, 2009

Culture Shock 04.09.09: Movie incentives offer opportunities for state — and me

"Space Camp" and "The Long Walk Home" were shot in Alabama. Some of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was filmed here, too, although not the famous Devil's Tower sequence, obviously.

But apart from "Big Fish" in 2003, it has been a while since a major Hollywood production set up shop in Alabama. The 1999 film "Crazy in Alabama," for example, stars Speake, Ala., native Lucas Black and is set in Alabama. But it was filmed in Louisiana.

That sort of thing sticks in the craw of Alabama's state legislators. Not only is it an affront to the state's honor — if you care about such things — it means millions of dollars are going to states like Louisiana that are standing in for the real Heart of Dixie. And who in Alabama doesn't care about that?

So, this year the Alabama Legislature finally passed an incentive package — basically a lot of tax breaks — designed to lure Hollywood producers to the state. But first, the proposal's backers had to win over the state's most powerful lobby, the Alabama Education Association.

AEA had opposed previous tax breaks for the movie industry, claiming they would cost the state's education budget much-needed funding.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but if Alabama was doing virtually no movie business before the tax breaks, and thus making almost no money off movie productions, how exactly were the tax breaks going to cost anything? Any percentage of zero is still zero. So, either someone in the AEA is pretty bad at math, which is a sobering thought, or AEA was just looking for a payoff.

It's almost like a Hollywood script. "The Godfather," maybe. After all, AEA Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert is a bit like the Don Corleone of Alabama politics. He makes politicians offers they can't refuse.

Well, this year AEA got its payoff, in the form of a law making it easier to tax out-of-state corporations that do business in Alabama, and dropped its opposition to the movie incentives bill, which, with the governor's signature, is now law.

Now, Alabama can not only play itself in the movies, it can stand in for other places as well. In theory, it could become the South's answer to Vancouver, British Columbia, which doubles for just about everywhere. Ever see Jackie Chan's "Rumble in the Bronx"? It is set in New York City, which makes the occasional appearance of the Rocky Mountains in the background of some scenes unintentionally hilarious.

But Hollywood's deep pockets weren't the only things on legislators' minds when they passed the incentives bill. Lawmakers were thinking about jobs, too.

Athens State University and Calhoun Community College are moving forward with a program to train students for jobs in the movie and television business. Soon, downtown Decatur, Ala., could be home to classes that prepare young Alabamians to be gaffers, best boys and other movie professionals with strange job titles. Someone around here could be the next Steven Spielberg, or at least the next Roger Corman.

This is a great opportunity. If there had been a film school around here when I graduated from high school, do you think I would have gotten degrees in economics and political science? Not a chance.

But it is still good news for me because I'll need trained professionals to work on my film, "Kung Fu Biker Zombies vs. the Vampire Strippers from Hell in 3-D." Granted, I don't have a script yet, just a plot synopsis scribbled on a cocktail napkin one late night at The Brick Deli & Tavern. But I feel good about this project. And with the tax breaks Alabama is offering, I might be able to bring it in under the $30 million budget I have in mind.

Sure, my original plan was for the movie to be set in Nevada, but it's not too late to make revisions for the sake of my native state.

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