Here's My Stick-it-to-the-Rich Formula for Making Arizona the Indie Film Capitol of the West

It seems like we’re going to give a tax credit to some of the wealthiest people in the world
— Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is a charter member of that "wealthiest people in the world" group. And yet that didn't stop nearly every U.S. state and municipality with a stop light and at least one Burger King from floating Titanic-size barges of tax breaks and incentives to snag the new Amazon HQ.

Tucson tried to bribe Bezos with a saguaro. It got us a headline in the New York Post and not much else. The Phoenix metro area offered unspecified "creative" incentives. I hope it wasn't two saguaros. Regardless, I imagine it paled next to the combined $7 billion in open money bags that New Jersey offered--by Republican Governor Chris Christie, no less.

The point is, states--even fiscal tightwads like Arizona--cough up business incentives when the stakes are high enough. But, for the last few years, the door has been slamming shut on tax credits, rebates, and other incentives designed to lure film and media production. In the last nine years the number of states offering production incentives dropped from 44 to 31. Arizona was one of them--it put the famed AZ sunset on its incentives in 2010.

Rich conservatives, it appears, do not like giving money to rich liberals, which explains the 2016 headline "How the Koch Brothers Killed the Florida Film Industry" in various media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal. They especially don't like giving it to billionaire Jane Fonda, and the secret formula that I'm about to unveil in no way advocates moving the Netflix production of Grace and Frankie to Sneaky Big Studios. Hell, no!

But--and I'm looking at you the 90 members of the bicameral body known as the Arizona State Legislature--there is a cheap way to boost the economy by providing jobs to some of the most destitute individuals this side of Brentwood:

Independent filmmakers.

These people are not only not rich, they can be found begging for money and filching free cognac in upstanding communities like Park City, Utah. They don't look like much in their black baseball caps and motorcycle boots, but they're not asking for much, either. The average budget for an independent film is about $750,000 (maybe a few bucks more, as that figure is from 2014). Enough to make a movie and have $20 left to help re-elect Gov. Doug Ducey, nudge, wink, nudge, wink.

Right now, independent filmmakers here in the West have to duke it out with some of the wealthiest movie people in the world (who also like to party with Jane Fonda) for production incentives from California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Yep, every state surrounding this state offers some variation of tax credits and rebates. A 25% tax credit is common. 30% is not unheard of. Free instant coffee--yours for the asking.

This is why Only the Brave (2017) was filmed in New Mexico. This is why a movie called Arizona (in production) was filmed in New Mexico.

And here's the kicker. The New Mexico state house is pushing to eliminate the $50 million cap on film incentives in that state. That whooshing sound you hear emanating from the Land of Enchantment? That's the sound of Hollywood semi trucks roaring across the Grand Canyon State en route to claiming their share of uncapped incentives. Given that California has a hefty $330 million cap, the Arizona film industry is threatening to look like the recipient of a Jimmy Jacobs chair shot.

Cue the 2,000+ U.S. independent films made and submitted to the Sundance Film Festival each year. Most were made for under a million bucks. But states like California require a minimum production budget of $1M. So your average $750,000 feature does not qualify for tax credits. Back to the Sundance lounge bars they go, hat in hand.

There is an opportunity here, Arizona. It's going to cost you a few bucks, but at Happy Hour Taco Tuesday prices:

Offer a 25% tax credit or rebate to qualifying productions with a budget or spend under $1 million with a $5 million annual cap.

If the first year is successful, consider raising the cap by $1M every year for five years, for a final cap of $10 million. In that interval the program will have brought in nearly 60 filmed productions into the state. Sundance estimates that an average of 64 people work on every film accepted by the film festival. Those 60 films, with a combined budget of $45 million, would employ 3,840 crew, actors, and related positions.

By the way, that's nearly twice the number of people that Tucson's Ratheon was planning to hire over five years, starting in 2017. Sure, those film and missile-building positions are not equivalent, but it's something to think about.

So that's the plan. A small, relatively inexpensive way to bring film back to Arizona, sneak in behind California and New Mexico while they do the heavy lifting, and keep lefty profligates like Tom Cruise away from Charles Koch's cookie jar.

We're still going to have to cowboy up. New Mexico offers a 25-30% credit and other incentives, but you know what? They don't share a border with California. They don't have the Grand Canyon. They have, like, three saguaros.

And this is where they filmed Rio Bravo, and, by God, New Mexico can't take John Wayne away from us.