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New Tax Incentives Program Aims To Boost Kentucky's Fledgling Film Industry


On screen, a federal marshal with a touch of the South in his voice tells a meth dealer to not reach for a gun. The meth dealer reaches anyway, and the marshal, played by Timothy Olyphant, shoots him.

The scene from the FX television drama "Justified" was set in Kentucky; in fact, most of the show's action centered on the Eastern Kentucky community of Harlan County. But the show was shot in California.

A new tax incentives program aims to change that for future productions — and help capture the millions of dollars in local spending that could come along with them. The incentives are designed to boost the number of big film shoots in the state —which are rare — while increasing the number of small shoots that happen more regularly in Kentucky.

Brian Cunningham is co-owner of Louisville-based Thoughtfly Films. The company splits its time between artistic and work-for-hire projects. It recently finished filming "Loss Prevention," its second full-length feature.

Cunningham said Louisville has a "pretty thriving" scene of filmmakers working on low-budget productions.

"What you don't have as much of at the moment, pre-incentive, is the bigger budget movies being made, especially people coming in from out of town trying to shoot here," Cunningham said.

That's where the new program would come in. The tax incentives were created to attract bigger productions that could give the state an economic boost, said Mona Juett, deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism.

The program went into effect this spring, and officials have approved nine films for incentives so far, she said. A couple have already begun production.

The projects have a total budget of about $8 million, and as much as $3.5 million could go back to film companies through tax rebates for spending on gas, food and lodging, among other things. The program either rebates the state's 6 percent sales tax or provides a refundable income tax credit of up to 20 percent to film or television productions that spend more than $500,000 here.

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The program also would encourage companies to spend money in ways that help Kentuckians, Juett said, in part by rewarding them for staffing production crews with in-state workers or for shooting counties away from urban areas.

A boost to the number of film productions in Kentucky would benefit film crew staff, who typically work on a project-by-project basis. Filmmaker Stu Pollard said a common topic of conversation on film production crews is what the next job might be.

"It would be nice if, when you had a shoot in Kentucky that was getting ready to wrap, if that conversation was about the next shoot in Kentucky, as opposed to the next shoot in Chicago," said Pollard, who splits his time between Kentucky and Hollywood.

"In addition to movies, which might get all the headlines, the big win for the state would be landing a television show like what's happened in Tennessee with 'Nashville,'" said Pollard, referring to the ABC drama.

"If the show hits, it starts to build an industry. People start to say, 'Hey, I can live there and work there six or eight months out of the year.'"

While it's easy to dream of big Hollywood dollars rolling into Kentucky on the coattails of high-profile celebrities, tax incentives programs don't always work as designed. While most states have some version of a film production tax incentive, some are starting to wonder if the money coming in really adds up.

Louisiana's state legislature recently capped the total amount of funds the state can rebate to film companies at $180 million a year. That state paid $308 million in incentives to film companies in the most recent fiscal year.

And earlier this year, the Alaska legislature ended that state's film incentives two years before the program was set to expire, citing declines in oil and gas revenues.

Not everyone needs a financial incentive to shoot here.

Louisville native Nick Helfers’ Two Goose Productions recently wrapped a short film called “Where the Weeds Grow.” Helfers's small company is based in Chicago, where he attended film school. But he returned to Louisville to shoot this film.

"I love it here," he said. "The scenery is amazing for film sets."

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