Gov. Jay Nixon Yells "Cut" to Filmmaking in Missouri
Keeping the state safe from Hollywood values—and millions in economic development.
Unlike so many industries that have fled America, the world of filmmaking has brought an explosion of jobs and economic development across the country in recent decades.
Thousands of films and videos are now filmed on location in cities big and small, in the rural countryside—pretty much everywhere. There are Hollywood blockbusters, tiny indie films, TV commercials and reality shows, educational videos, YouTube hits, and so on.
The larger films are tourism juggernauts, sometimes bringing large crews and ensuing hotel-and-restaurant spending, but more often than not, filmmakers large and small need to hire local talent to handle a wide range of production functions. They need technicians for sound, lighting, casting, makeup, and all sorts of other jobs that go into a production.
Even on a small commercial venture, putting together a film or video on location requires local knowledge of where the resources are, as well as choosing the right backdrops and personnel and dealing with countless logistical issues. Wherever they go, out-of-town filmmakers need local help.
It is no coincidence that hundreds of film commissions have sprung up across the country in response to the demand for such assistance. It’s an investment so obvious that literally every state in America has a full-time film office—
or at the least, some easily accessed specialists—to recruit filmmakers and serve their needs.
Well, make that every state but one.
The great state of Missouri—heretofore singularly noteworthy for having the nation’s lowest tobacco taxes—now can add this to its resume: It’s the only state that has decided to just say no to film.
In late June, Gov. Jay Nixon announced he was closing the Missouri Film Commission at a savings of $175,000, or roughly three-quarters of a thousandth of a percent of the state’s $23 billion budget. Actually, his budget director did the announcement, proclaiming that “staffing a dedicated film office was simply not feasible.”
For perspective, this amount would proportionally be the equivalent of a family with a $100,000 annual budget saving 76 cents.
Even the state’s conservative legislature had agreed to fund the commission, which played a key role in bringing two back-to-back Oscar-nominated pictures to the state, Up in the Air and Winter’s Bone.
Earlier this year, Nixon was willing to release only $1 million for the film Fun Size from the state’s $4.5 million tax-incentive fund, a decision that led the filmmakers to shoot instead in Cleveland, where the use of Ohio tax credits was credited with being key to bringing tens of millions of dollars to the local economy.
But closing the state’s film office, which played a critical role in providing a wide range of services essential to filmmakers on location, might do even more long-term damage than the refusal to use oft-controversial tax credits for films. Administering tax credits was just part of its job.
Jerry Jones, who served for more than a decade as executive director of the commission, argues there’s “no logical reason” for his office to be eliminated. He says the commission served the needs of about 100 projects generating $5.1 million in economic development last year.
Jones believes that someone in Nixon’s office mistakenly thought that the commission was largely about administering the much-debated film tax credits and that an aversion to those credits made it an easy target. Amazingly, Jones says he was never consulted or given the chance to defend the office last fall when someone in the administration removed it from the Missouri Department of Economic Development (DED) budget.
The legislature had reinstated much of the commission’s budget, only to have Nixon remove it again in late June. As is his custom, the governor felt no need to engage in any public debate of the issue, and he left the explanation to aides.
“The film tax credits are going to remain the same, and the functions of that office are being integrated with the Department of Economic Development, which is where the film office has been,” says Nixon spokesman Scott Holste. “We’re confident that the functions will be able to be carried out elsewhere in the department.”
Holste says eliminating the film office will save the state more than $200,000.
“In these budget times, we’ve got to look wherever we can to make cuts,” Holste says.
This seems a strange place to start. For one thing, Nixon has stated, ad nauseam, that “as governor, my top priorities are creating jobs and moving our economy forward.”
Nixon is always talking about jobs. It’s not uncommon for his office to issue press releases with titles such as “Reminder: Today Gov. Nixon in St. Joseph to announce creation of 15 new jobs, expansion of local metal fabrication company.”
A press release and a gubernatorial trip for 15 jobs? Yes, and there have been many others like it. So wouldn’t one suppose that the economic development specialists at DED are working overtime to execute this highest priority of the governor? Aren’t they already busy?
How are these people going to absorb the work of two film-industry specialists (who earned only $58,000 and $40,000, respectively, by the way), maintain the extensive database that they’d developed, handle all of the minutiae and technical details of roughly 100 projects per year, and administer the tax credits for major films?
Oh, and this absorption of duties is actually going to save the state more than the entire film commission’s budget, without missing a beat. The governor’s budget experts don’t lack creativity.
Jones says Nixon and his staff simply don’t get it.
“What we do isn’t rocket science, but it’s a very specialized field involving all sorts of specific knowledge and ability that the film industry relies upon,” Jones says. “This is like a restaurant getting rid of all its cooks and claiming we’ll just have their duties absorbed by the rest of our staff.
Cliff Froehlich, longtime local film expert and executive director of Cinema St. Louis, agrees.
“This is really unfortunate, because the work of the state film office was underrated,” Froehlich says. “It takes a great deal of knowledge of the film industry to do what the film office does, and they did it well.
“You can argue over whether tax credits are a good thing, but if you’re going to have them, they need to be used wisely,” he continues. “The film office had the knowledge to know how to place those credits with appropriate films, to know who’s an appropriate candidate that can give you the most bang for the buck, to know which directors need to be taken seriously, and a lot more.
“And the office did much more than manage the tax credits. It played a huge role in servicing the needs of the people bringing films here. It maintained a substantial database of people who the filmmakers need when they come to the state—the crew base, meaning lighting, equipment rental, makeup, costumes, cinematographers, production assistants...all kinds of people that they hire within the state.”
Froehlich says cutting the commission is especially bad for St. Louis, because the city is highly regarded for the diversity of its landscape and architecture. Its wide range of buildings, for example, can be used to mimic many other cities; thus, many locations that appear different in a film can be shot here.
He says the closing of the film office—with all of its services—may well negate the city’s natural advantages.
“Now who do these people call?” Froehlich wonders. “If they have to deal with a state bureaucracy, if it’s not simple and clear, it’s just as easy to go somewhere else.”
That’s almost certainly what will happen now that Missouri takes its proud place as the only state not providing specialized assistance to people wanting to import films—and their attendant jobs and economic development—to the state. And saying no to any new film tax credits can’t be far behind.
“It’s a joke, what Nixon’s done,” says J. Kim Tucci, chairman of the St. Louis International Film Festival, vice chairman of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, president of The Pasta House, Democratic mover and shaker, and—he says—former major backer of Nixon.
“We’re not going to have anything now for bringing in films,” says Tucci. “He thinks he knows everything, and he thinks that the economic impact of bringing in films is minuscule to the state in comparison to what it brings to the major cities.
“Well where does he think the cities are? Aren’t we part of the state of Missouri? Is every job supposed to go to Jeff City?”
Tucci is still fuming from Nixon’s refusal to allow sufficient tax credits to go to Paramount Pictures to bring Fun Size here. He says the film’s executive producer, St. Louis University High School graduate Michael Beugg, was ready to shoot the film here on the heels of the successful Missouri production of Up in the Air.
“Paramount was so happy with their experience filming Up in the Air here that they were coming to town with Fun Size,” Tucci says. “I had 14 phone calls with Michael Beugg, and I know they were excited, and they were going to spend $15 million here.
“The economic impact would have been $50 million; we would have 7,000 room nights and all kinds of work for the Teamsters, the electricians, the carpenters, the stagehands...lots of people here. This wasn’t an indie film; this was Paramount bringing in the 18-wheelers.
“Nixon didn’t sign off, and they filmed the movie in Ohio. We got nothing.”
SLM co-owner Ray Hartmann is a panelist on KETC Channel 9’s Donnybrook, which airs Thursdays at 7 p.m.