You Are What You Eat

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It’s a problem familiar to Hollywood screenwriters and film directors: an idea that seemed like a sure thing during an artistic late-night brainstorming session ends up on the cutting room floor when it sends test audiences howling for the exits.

Now, some red-faced state economic development agencies know the feeling.

During the past half-decade, 44 states have adopted incentives to encourage film production in their neighborhoods. At least 28 states are offering generous tax credits to the movie-making industry, which has been seen as a surefire and relatively simple medium for converting unused facilities into job-creating locations. New Mexico, Iowa, Michigan, Louisiana and New Jersey, among others, have put out the legislative welcome mat to Hollywood.

Unfortunately, some of these initiatives have not produced a feel-good Hollywood ending.

In Iowa, state officials are reeling from a Titanic-scale incentives disaster that has resulted in criminal charges filed by the state attorney general against the former head of the Iowa Film Office and a local film producer relating to the filming of a 2008 flick called The Scientist in Council Bluffs.

The state probe, which is ongoing, found that Iowa tax credits allegedly had been used to purchase luxury vehicles and other personal items during the making of The Scientist. Additionally, the state has accused the film’s producers of inflating the cost of making the movie from $767,250 to almost $1.8 million in order to justify the receipt of $1.85 million in state tax credits.

Last fall, as news of the attorney general’s investigation became public, Gov. Chet Culver ordered the entire film program shut down. In the months that ensued, several top state economic development officials in Iowa were axed, including Iowa Film Office manager Tom Wheeler.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s economic development mavens have uncomfortably discovered that promoting film production in the Wolverine State also requires them to be film critics.

Two years ago, film producer Andrew van den Houten became one of the first applicants for Michigan’s generous film subsidy, which pays for up to 42 percent of a movie’s cost. The result was The Offspring, a cannibalism-themed horror flick that apparently went direct to video, never gracing movie theater screens.

The relatively low profile of Mr. van den Houten’s first flesh-eating epic probably let it slip under Michigan’s image-sensitive radar. But when the producer applied for funding for a sequel, state officials were ready.

Even though the new film, The Woman, was said to be tamer than the original, Michigan Film Commissioner Janet Lockwood rejected the application. Lockwood invoked a provision in Michigan’s incentives law that says movies underwritten by the state should help promote it as a tourist destination.

“This film is unlikely to promote tourism in Michigan or to present or reflect Michigan in a positive light,” she declared.

Lockwood specifically objected to “this extreme horror film’s subject matter, namely realistic cannibalism; the gruesome and graphically violent depictions described in the screenplay; and the explicit nature of the script.”

Van den Houten responded by noting that Michigan had no qualms about the potential impact on tourism when it funded The Offspring. “We had babies in the first movie,” he added.

And so ends another episode in the dog-eat-dog competition of state film-making initiatives.

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