You are at a College Avenue coffeeshop in downtown Appleton. While applying cream and sugar to a cup of premium blend, you see Tom Cruise at a nearby table paging through a tabloid magazine that inexplicably doesn’t have his smiling face on the cover. Sitting across from Mr. Katie Holmes is Samuel L. Jackson quietly reciting an expletive-spiked monologue about how the meaning of life is best expressed by “The Facts of Life” theme song. But Jackson’s informal rehearsal isn’t quiet enough for Scarlett Johansson, fetchingly curled up in her own booth, who turns up the White Stripes song on her iPod while sipping the most expensive cappuccino on the menu.
You look down expecting to see your naked body, the only logical conclusion to a fantastic dream borne of one too many late night viewings of “Extra!”
For the time being it is only a dream. But there is hope among Wisconsin filmmakers, tourism officials, business leaders and politicians that the state could become a player in attracting major Hollywood productions, which would bring celebrities from the screen to our backyard to make movies.
Wisconsin’s Hollywood hopes hinge on an alluring package of tax incentives signed into law two months ago offering movie-makers breaks on corporate and individual income taxes paid to workers, tax credits for establishing in-state film production companies and compensation for up to 25 percent of non-wage production expenses like hotel rooms, car rentals and set construction.
When it comes to setting up a movie shoot, you might think a Hollywood big shot would care more about having the right shampoo for his prized Chihuahua than boring old tax legislation. But with movies more expensive to make than ever, producers must pinch pennies wherever they can, especially if it means the difference between casting Will Ferrell for your lead role, or Joe Piscopo. Tax credits equal millions of extra dollars.
Word of Wisconsin’s incentives quickly spread throughout the film industry and put us back on the movie map after years of minimal activity, said Dave Fantle, spokesman for tourism group Visit Milwaukee and task member for grassroots organization Film Wisconsin, which formed last year and lobbied hard for the tax breaks.
Film productions that have expressed interest in coming here include “Poker Brat,” a movie about Madison poker player Phil Hellmuth budgeted at $7 million, and “Cheeseheads,” a feel-good story about a devoted Packers fan from the producer of “Platoon,” “Hoosiers” and “The Terminator.” All told Fantle estimates these films and others looking at Wisconsin have budgets totaling about $78 million. Considering the latest “Pirates of the Carribbean” movie cost more than $200 million, that’s not exactly huge in Hollywood dollars. But it’s not a bad start for a state whose most recent whiff of major movie-making magic was Bernie Mac’s forgettable sports comedy “Mr. 3000” in 2004.
“Just as they look for new faces, Hollywood looks for new skylines,” Fantle said. “We’re talking huge economic impact even after these productions go away … It can serve as a positive advertisement for your destination.”
Here’s the part where the surprise twist comes in (dum, dum, dum): It’s likely none of the movies Fantle is talking about will actually be made here. Because all those juicy incentives don’t go into effect until Dec. 31, 2007. And there already are plenty of other states—35 to be exact—that offer tax breaks right now, including surrounding states like Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa that ratcheted up their film benefits after Wisconsin did. Or before we did, depending on how you look at it.
By putting an 18-month gap between our bark and our bite, did we blow the lead role before we were even cast?
“We created such a buzz with incentives that we already have people very much interested in working here,” said Dave Fantle. “How are we going to get out of the box to say we want those millions now?”
Read the rest of this story in Thursday's Fox Cities Weekend in The P-C.