DES MOINES — It’s back to the future for state officials and moviemakers hoping to rekindle the glory days of Iowa’s film industry after a scandal linked to an ill-fated and mismanaged tax credit program killed some movie projects, threw others in disarray or moved them elsewhere, and sent some participants off to jail for improperly exploiting the lucrative Iowa incentives for personal gain.
Now that the criminal prosecutions stemming from the tax credit debacle have ended, including the acquittal of Bettendorf accountant Chad Witter, 39, the Iowa scene shifts from the courtroom to the delicate process of rebuilding the state’s shattered and nationally disgraced image within an industry that once saw Iowa’s low production costs and camera-friendly locations as heaven for moviemakers who count “Field of Dreams,” “Bridges of Madison County,” “The Final Season,” “Twister” and “Country” among their past accomplishments.
Industry insiders like John Busbee — a freelance artist from Des Moines with more than 30 years of experience as a production professional, actor, writer and development expert – acknowledge the sequel for Iowa’s Film Office won’t be easy and it likely will have to reopen as a renamed entity in its new home within the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
“Right now film is a four-letter word that begins with ‘f,’” said Busbee, who noted that movie, video, commercial and other related productions continue to take place in Iowa in the post-tax credit scandal era but they are moving at a glacial pace compared to the high expectations that flowed into Iowa when at least four brick-and-mortar studios were contemplated in Iowa to accommodate the work expected to flow from the film incentives offered from 2007 until September 2009 when the program was suspended.
Wendol Jarvis, who served as film office manager during Gov. Terry Branstad’s previous four-term stint as governor and is Branstad’s choice to reprieve the role, said the film tax credit fiasco that occurred during the Culver administration was a mix of incompetency and greed that caused widespread damage to the film industry inside and outside of Iowa.
“The effects of the Iowa Film Office scandal have had ripple effects through the whole industry. It’s damaged the industry very severely,” Jarvis said. “Many states have been impacted by this, and that’s created a great deal of problems and a lot of apprehension about doing business with Iowa in the film industry.”
To that end, whatever future course Iowa takes to attract filmmakers and promote the state as a movie locale must provide trust and security to an industry with a long memory and it must be done the right way because the state might only get a second chance to prove itself, he noted.
“That’s absolutely right. We can’t mess it up,” said David Roederer, Branstad’s director of the Iowa Department of Management.
However, the office already faces challenges given that skeptical lawmakers only appropriated $200,000 – half of Branstad’s funding request — to the effort when they voted last session to permanently end the film tax credit program and keep the film office, but move it from the state Economic Partnership Authority to the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs effective July 1. Also, there will be no state financial incentives when the film office reopens for business although Branstad has indicated he would like to explore public-private partnerships as opportunities to help encourage various projects.
Mary Cownie, director of the state Department of Cultural Affairs, said the new office is envisioned as a one-stop clearinghouse and “conduit” to provide prospective filmmakers with contacts for music, production, labor, locations, community networks and other information they may need in bringing a project to Iowa. Her office also is pulling together available information, talking with other states and formulating a position description before embarking on a hiring process that may take several months to complete.
“This obviously is going to take time and we want to make sure we do it right and we’re doing it strategically,” she said. “We just need to start back from the ground up and build a strong foundation in terms of being able to sell Iowa.”
Cownie said there currently is film activity going on in Iowa even without an incentive program but there are few calls to her office. What calls they do get, she said, are referred to Kent Newman, a former board member with the Iowa Motion Picture Association who does production work in the Des Moines area and remains connected with various aspects of the film business.
Newman said there were many positive aspects from the film tax credit program that included considerable training for young people interested in working in the entertainment industry and several projects that successfully used the tax incentives to complete high-quality productions. However, when the incentive program was suspended in 2009 many projects and people moved to Michigan, Louisiana and other places where there were jobs being offered.
“I don’t believe that there’s a black cloud over Iowa,” he said. “We’re not the first state that has mismanaged a program like this. I think the main thing is we’ve all learned a lot. I think if we have a chance to do it again, we can do it right.”
While Branstad and other policy-makers have said they are interested in state incentives and note that 59 major feature movies and several thousand smaller film projects were shot in Iowa in past decades with no government financing, Newman said in the current environment that “unless and until Iowa has some level of a competitive incentive program that is well managed, we’re never going to have very much production happening here.”
He said he was hopeful local communities would fill in that void by offering to waive the first month of hotel-motel tax for production crews or other incentives that could entice film projects in the range of $3 million to $10 million that would headquarter in an Iowa city where they would be a short distance from rural locales that would be prime destinations for a film shoot.
Busbee said many people in the movie industry are “still stinging” from what happened in Iowa and there is a mind set among film studios right now that they won’t consider a state for a movie location that doesn’t offer some kind of financial incentive.
“They were building potential here in the state of Iowa on a long-range basis and, without giving any option, the rug was pulled out from under them because there were a lot of legitimate ventures that were starting to gain traction and they didn’t have a chance,” Busbee noted. Bringing an end to the negative headlines stemming from the tax-credit criminal prosecutions should help improve the situation.
“It puts it in the rear view mirror and we can separate that chapter of history from what many of us are doing, which is we’re going to make positive things happen and hopefully people won’t just have a default response when they hear filmmaking,” he said. “It’s a very viable creative economy industry that Iowa needs to consider. It is something that can succeed here because of the assets and resources Iowa has to shoot films.”