Lander — If you’ve ever had an idea for a movie (oh, don’t pretend you haven’t, my friend, whether you’re a novelist, a latte sipper, or a pipe-welder), and you see the wide open spaces of Wyoming as the perfect backdrop for your ‘Lonesome Chukar’ screenplay, then you have probably heard of FIFI. If not, well, have I got a deal for you …
FIFI is not the agent in New York who’s going to get you six figures for your screenplay, nor the family dog in “Brokeback Mountain” – FIFI is the Film Industry Financial Incentive that’s supposed to convince Tom Hanks or Keira Knightly to drag the private trailer and twenty trucks of film equipment to, say, Wright, Wyoming, to film that romantic costume epic about Genghis Khan’s secret romance with Richard the Lionhearted.
(Okay, I don’t know if there is such an epic in the works, but the high prairie and unmarred horizons around Wright would be a good stand-in for the Steppes of Asia, and there’d be fewer terrorists in the tall grass. And in the great deal-making swamp of Hollywood there are, believe me, a gazillion treatments sliming around for everything from the siege of Stalingrad to your grandmother’s mah jong game.)
Wyoming is one of several states trying to sell themselves as props and scenery in the name of economic development. A year ago, the legislature took some of the drippings from its bubbling budget stewpot, and put $1 million in a special fund to entice moviemakers here. If a production were willing to drop $500,000 in the Cowboy State, mention us in the credits, and maybe flash a “Chugwater Chili” label during the action, why, the filmmakers it could get as much as 15% of its costs back from the state.
If this were Brad Pitt’s latest movie, that $1 million would barely cover the nanny costs, but never mind. So far, unless you go back to “Shane” or “Close Encounters” or the Oscar-overlooked “Starship Troopers,” Wyoming hasn’t attracted much more than truck commercials – none of which have reached the half-million mark in local expense.
So, I’m sending out the word to the pipe-welders and latte-wielders to shake the dust off that 100-page masterpiece and get it in play. One million dollars is just sitting there in FIFI’s kibble bowl. Beat Tom Hanks to it (his proposal is a so-far-unproduced movie called “Boone’s Lick”, based on a novel by the oppressively-omnipresent Larry McMurtry). More realistically, beat the guys who make “Ram Tough” commercials to it.
You also might have to beat the legislature to it – because they may be having second thoughts about the program, after a recent article in the New York Times. The article suggests there’s growing skepticism that film incentives really help the states that offer them. (They obviously work for production companies – who wouldn’t want to get 10 % of that caviar catering paid by taxpayers?) The villain in the NY Times piece is a movie called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, a $167 million blockbuster that got a $27 million infusion from the state of Louisiana, a state with a loosey-goosey incentive program whose film commissioner was recently convicted of taking bribes from filmmakers.
Even bribes – and these are incentives, please – may be enough to turn Wyoming into Wyowood. Years ago, the independent film maker John Sayles came to Wyoming (lured by his old college friend, Wyoming writer and editor Tom Rea) to look for locations where he could shoot a movie based on the fine book Yellow Raft in Blue Water. We took him up to a string of beautiful lakes just south of Dubois in the Wind River Range, which certainly looked right for the story about an abused girl on an Indian reservation. But movie productions – even smaller operations like Sayles’ – are less about camera angles and action than they are about food, weather, and comfortable beds. And while the donut shop in Dubois can handle a tough, hungry, early morning crowd during hunting season, I’m not sure they can do foie gras for 100. So it was not selected.
Really, Wyoming doesn’t offer much to filmmakers except scenery. We don’t have a large army of videographers or editors or actors. Even when we have a story – like the death of a young Dubois man in Iraq – the production of “Taking Chance” went instead to Montana because the help’s better there, and there’s more of them.
Which brings us to the most serious question – does a movie production infuse the state’s economy in a useful way? If we lack the technical skills, they’ll have to import shooters and gaffers and Best Boy’s (you’ve seen it in the credits – what is that?) and we can only hope each one of them will buy a stuffed jackalope before they leave. Massive one-shot catering jobs require big outlays and equipment, but only for a few weeks. Is anyone going to make that investment locally? And then be stuck with it when it’s back to donuts for pronghorn hunters? Is the environmental and social disruption of trucks, cables, and spoiled movie stars such a great benefit? Does anybody get a permanent job out of this?
“It was never meant to be a way to develop long-term jobs,” says Colin Stricklin, who has a presumably long-term job at the Wyoming Film Commission. He spoke just a little slowly, the way people often speak to me when explaining economics. “It’s a sort of ‘super-tourism’ – not infrastructure, but more of a black bag of money.”
Why black? But what am I doing? Good grief, I’m on a Film Commission subcommittee that reads scripts. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you! (Or at least pets your furry head – there’s no money involved.)
And in fact, someday I may resign from that subcommittee and get that old treatment out of the closet. (Well, I’ll get one of them out.) My screenplay could be shot entirely in Wyoming. It’s about a pipe-welder who joins the Army just before the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. A big action film with Bruce Willis as the crusty old colonel, and Keira Knightley as the gorgeous-but-lethal lieutenant trying to command the respect of her men while forced to wear a burqa in combat. What draws the crucial 12-16 year old males to the theaters is, of course, things blowing up in the desert – oil refineries, little towns, that sort of thing. And what locale could provide a better stand-in than Wyoming? We could use Jeffrey City, a town where frankly not much has been going on since the last boom and bust, and … and blow it up!
Now that’s economic development.