Lights, camera, tax credit! Kentucky attracts moviemakers by raising incentives


LA GRANGE — Fifteen crewmembers piled into a cramped library at Meadowland Farm, a luxury estate in La Grange, at mid-morning Tuesday.

It’s the fifth day of a 17-day shoot for The Ultimate Legacy, the first film to take advantage of Kentucky’s newly enhanced film incentive program enacted earlier this year.

The scene in the library is the second of nine on the docket Tuesday and takes place toward the end of the film.

Local crewmembers George Maranville and Mattie Ware, the first assistant director and key grip, respectively, work to fix a lighting problem in the library as everyone not associated with the production is ushered out.

Just outside the door are three chairs for the producer, the director and the script supervisor. They’re positioned around two monitors displaying different angles of the scene, called “video village.”

Local script supervisor Kelsey Forren, who maintains the script’s continuity among other duties, directs a member of the crew inside the library in order to preserve the integrity of the scene.

Nearly 140 of the 200 crewmembers The Ultimate Legacy will employ are from the area, and none of them would be there if it weren’t for the state’s beefed-up film incentives.

“I wasn’t even considering Kentucky until (the state’s) new incentives were brought to my attention,” said producer Rick Eldridge, who looked at Georgia (where he has filmed before), Tennessee, and seriously considered South Carolina.

But as a result of South Carolina’s limited and capped incentive program he settled on Kentucky.

“I think (Kentucky) could be a diamond in the rough,” said Forren, who’s worked on about 25 productions in the area over a 9-year span. “There are a lot of great physical locations (in Kentucky), between city life and rural diversity. I really hope (productions) come to Kentucky and see what this side of the country has to offer.”

Gov. Steve Beshear signed House Bill 340 May 7 that increased Kentucky’s existing film incentive program, which was enacted in 2009.

The state’s previous program awarded a tax credit of 20 percent to production companies that spent $50,000 for documentaries, $200,000 for commercials and $500,000 for films and television productions.

But as of May 7, the value of the tax credit increased to 30 percent, and 35 percent if local crews are hired or if the production is filmed in a designated (usually impoverished) region of the state.

The minimum required expenditure has decreased as well, as documentaries require only $20,000, commercials require $100,000 and films and television require $250,000.

Thresholds for in-state companies were lowered even more: $10,000 for documentaries, $100,000 for commercials and $125,000 for full-length films or television.

The bill declared that any tax-credit application submitted to the Kentucky Film Office after Jan. 1 would receive the new tax credit.

Since that time, 10 applications for production have been submitted and eight have been approved: five feature films, one TV program, one documentary and one commercial. Not all of these productions have committed to coming to Kentucky.

The two remaining applications will be up for approval this month.

Like many tax-credit programs, film tax credits prompt two very different schools of thought: those who think tax credits bring new money and new jobs to the state and those who believe it’s a waste of money on short-lived projects.

One state that has acted on the latter group’s beliefs is North Carolina, which has had a bustling film community as a result of a generous film incentive.

Former governor Beverly Perdue increased the state’s incentive program in 2009 from 15 percent to 25 percent, attracting productions such as Iron Man, Hunger Games, Homeland and Under the Dome (which featured Lexington native Grace Victoria Cox in a recurring role).

But since then North Carolina has completely cut the program.

Eldridge, who is also the CEO of the North Carolina-based production company ReelWorks Studios, attributes the cuts to the lack of understanding of the film business by current governor Pat McCrory.

As for the benefits it will provide Kentucky, filmmakers say projects such as The Ultimate Legacy provide work for local performers, crews, and sound mixing and editing companies that otherwise would not be in the state. And those and visiting production crews spend money at local restaurants and hotels, and use local transportation and catering while filming.

Stephanie Whonsetler, the production manager of The Ultimate Legacy, left her full-time job at a production company in North Carolina to move back to Kentucky in June upon hearing about the updated incentive program.

“I love this state, and I think it has a ton to offer,” Whonsetler said. “So I took the risk and jumped ship.”

The Louisville native said she’s very committed to Kentucky and wants to help bring productions here and show them what the commonwealth has to offer.

“I think Kentucky’s so great because everyone is so excited about the possibility of filmmaking here,” she said. “With word of mouth and as long as the state stays committed to it, I really think there’s a great future for Kentucky.”

Detractors of the program, however, claim that the crew jobs provided are low-wage, short-term jobs that don’t benefit Kentuckians in the long run.

As of 2009, all but six states — Delaware, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Vermont — had film incentive programs, according to

Since that time Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Wisconsin have eliminated their programs or not included funding for them in their upcoming budgets because of concerns they’re not getting enough back for their buck.

Film tax incentives have become like a bidding war between states, or what economist Robert Tannenwald, a staunch detractor of the incentives, calls “perpetual competition purgatory.”

“Film tax credits should be given to provide sustainable jobs,” Tannenwald said. “Those provided on film productions just aren’t sustainable.”

Milan Chakraborty, a producer who brought his film Where Hope Grows to Kentucky, takes issue with that sentiment.

“All (detractors) are saying is that (the film incentive program) is not sustainable because if you get rid of the tax incentives, productions leave. Well, then don’t get rid of tax incentives,” he said. “It’s always going to be money that is being spent here that would not be here if it wasn’t for the incentives.”

Chakraborty’s film was originally written to be shot in his hometown of Terre Haute, Ind., but because of Indiana’s smaller tax incentives he decided to film in Kentucky.

“States need to realize that (the incentive is) not 30 cents on the dollar lost, but 70 cents gained from a dollar that would have never been there in the first place,” he said.

Where Hope Grows, a 2014 release now on home video, was shot in Kentucky before the state increased its tax incentives, but Chakraborty praised the state and plans to bring many more productions here.

He plans on moving to Louisville and traveling to Los Angeles and New York whenever he has to and says he has several friends in the industry who are now considering shooting in Kentucky.

He also takes the opportunity to entice them to the state whenever he gets the chance.

“Kentucky has a lot of looks that haven’t been explored on film, quality equipment and a quality local crew,” he said. “I think it can be the best sub-$2 million filming destination in the country.”

The ramifications of the new incentives won’t manifest themselves for a while, but their popularity is already being seen.

The eight approved productions are seven more than the single application submitted in 2014, which was later withdrawn.

Kyle Arensdorf: (859) 231-3335. Twitter: @KYleKernel.

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