Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

A woman walks 1,100 miles from Mojave Desert to Washington State, crossing much of the Pacific Crest Trail. A team of college rowers wins the Olympic gold medal, beating out Hitler’s Germany. The first is the plot of the recent biopic Wild. The second is the soon to be filmed Boys in the Boat, which is based on the book of the same name about the University of Washington’s rowing team’s victory in the 1936 Olympics. Two years ago, Wild attempted to film in Washington, but the depletion of the state’s tax incentive program forced shooting to take place entirely in Oregon. Boys in the Boat is seeking to film here, but given the same problem, its fate remains ambiguous. Currently working its way through the state legislature is Senate Bill 6027, which, if passed, could bolster the state’s ailing film industry and provide a powerful enticement for major productions.  

Presently Washington incentivizes film productions by providing a tax rebate to movies and television shows that shoot in the state and hire Washington workers. Filmworks, the not-for-profit office responsible for distributing the tax incentives and facilitating state film productions, provides motion pictures with a rebate of up to 30% and episodic series up to 35% on qualified instate expenditures.

But with a cap of $3.5 million, Washington’s tax incentive program for film production is the fifth smallest in the country. By comparison, Oregon has a $10 million cap, while Vancouver, B.C., sets aside $250 million for its program. Some states, like Louisiana and Massachusetts have no cap at all.

When the producers of Wild decided to film in Oregon it wasn’t the first time Washington lost a local story for the lack of tax credit. Grey’s Anatomy, The Killing, and 50 Shades of Grey—each of which is set in Seattle—were filmed elsewhere. Amazon Studios’ The Man in the High Castle, which had the company’s most watched and expensive pilot episode, initially filmed throughout Seattle, but has since decamped to Vancouver. Scott Free, the show’s production company, cited Vancouver’s incentive as reason for the move.

Filmworks estimates that last year alone the state lost $55 million in state economic activity (things like wages and benefits for local film crews and the purchase of supplies and equipment) by turning away a handful of film productions. The lost revenue might have even been greater, says Filmworks executive director Amy Lillard, because “people stop calling once they find out the incentives are gone.”

Senate Bill 6027 would raise the cap on the incentive to $7 million over the next two years, with a gradual increase to $10 million by 2019. It’s an increase advocates see as justified, given that since 2007 the program has generated $96 million in direct in-state spending, with an estimated $44 million in wages to Washington residents.

And yet with large unfulfilled commitments to education and a growing demand for more transportation infrastructure, increasing tax breaks isn’t at the top of Olympia’s agenda. But for the local film community this is about more than money. With few major productions in state, it’s difficult for both filmmakers and crew to stay local. “Often our own film productions have to head off to states that have much bigger incentives, taking filmmakers with them,” says Kate Becker, director of Seattle’s Office of Film and Music. And it’s an impact that is not limited to just film, argues Lillard. “Having a movie industry fuels a much larger creative community, which means we are losing not only creative talent, but people who also work in the theater, video game, and music industries.”

As of now, SB 6027 is held up in the Republican-led Senate Ways and Means committee. At its March 25th hearing, an array of small business owners and industry professionals spoke in support of the bill. That’s after it received endorsements from more than 250 businesses and the state labor council, making this the first tax incentive the council has supported. With the legislature’s regular session set to end on April 26th and potential pushback from members of the House, though, the bill still has a fight on its hands. But, it’s a fight people like Lillard are willing to take on, because as she puts it: “If you’re looking at the future of entertainment and it is an intersection of storytelling and technology, then nowhere else in the world can do it as well as Washington.”

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