Iowa's movie people rethink their future

Jan and Jeff Smith of Cedar Rapids stand inside the Kraft Services truck, Monday October 11, 2010 at their home in Cedar
Jan and Jeff Smith of Cedar Rapids stand inside the Kraft Services truck, Monday October 11, 2010 at their home in Cedar Rapids, which they purchased in 2008 to feed casts and crews on movie sets. Jan goes through one of the many binders they have with pictures, autographs, and memories from each production they have worked on. "I'm like the mom on the set," she says. (Becky Malewitz/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The rapid rise and fall of filmmaking in Iowa during the state’s short-lived film tax-credit program has given some Iowans a taste of a better life, one they might pursue elsewhere unless the program is revived.

Jeff and Janelle Smith of Cedar Rapids typify the movie people who watched the film exodus from Iowa after the state suspended the film tax credit in September 2009. They had hoped the state would take firm steps to correct lax oversight of the program and resurrect it. Instead, they found out the state is prosecuting more filmmakers who abused the program.

“I probably made somewhere in the neighborhood of $60,000 last year,” said Jeff Smith, 58, who handles electrical needs on movie sets as a grip. “Now, I’m unemployed.”

The couple had invested about $30,000 last year to buy a used craft-service truck and have it shipped from Oregon for Janelle Smith’s craft-service business. Craft services dispense refreshments and personal necessities to cast and crew members during shooting. The truck, with license plates that read “CRAFTY,” sits idle in the driveway.

“I just hope they figure something out,” said Janelle Smith, 57.

Even her husband’s work in lighting and sound at downtown Cedar Rapids entertainment venues dried up from theater closures caused by the June 2008 flood. The couple have considered moving to New Mexico, where film tax credits fuel a growing industry.

Chris Bevauns, the operator of Monster Design Studio in Cedar Rapids, is a Los Angeles native with extensive costume and set design experience in the film industry. She worked non-stop in Iowa on nine features once the film tax-credit program took effect.

Even though she knows the program was abused, Bevauns raises her voice when she talks about the politics involved in suspending the program, sacking its administrator and cutting the program loose without trying to fix it.

“People only take advantage of you if you let them take advantage of you,” Bevauns said. “There wasn’t the oversight. We should do it right next time.”

Bevauns said she’s gone from making about $60,000 a year in set work to about $20,000 this year, working “as a handyman.” She’s reluctant to move because her husband has a good screenprinting business, their son is in a good school and she finds Iowa a great place to live.

“I need it back. I need it back in a big way,” Bevauns said.

Hair and makeup artist Andrea Politte of Anamosa spent most of the past month in Michigan, working on the independent horror thriller “Playback” with Christian Slater, because there was no work closer to home. About six other Iowans were on the crew.

Politte’s film income this year has dropped roughly in half, but she counts herself lucky. She’s half of a two-income household and can fall back on her massage and healing arts work with entertainers.

Politte wants movie work, though.

“(Iowa) is my home, but that’s not saying I’ll be here for long,” she said.

Some film projects that had already applied for a share of the roughly $50 million in available film tax credits were notified this fall that the projects were approved.

Vaughn Halyard, CEO of Story Lounge in Cedar Rapids, said he was notified in late July that tax credits would be issued for the TV science education-entertainment project “The Science of Thrill” that Story Lounge produced with MPV Studios and Fuel, a local design house. He said the project underwent “some serious vetting” from the state before it was approved.

Story Lounge has enough credits to get through a half-season of the show, Halyard said, and is hoping to make a presentation to the state when the time is right to get more credits for another season.

Halyard said Iowa film tax-credit projects helped Story Lounge get some “good respect in the production world,” but it is looking at ways to continue producing as much as it can in Iowa, where it has found a strong base of medical experts.

Iowa Motion Picture Association President Kent Fuller said he keeps hearing of Iowa actors and film professionals moving to New Orleans or other areas with healthy film industries. He estimates that 400 to 500 Iowans were working on movie projects during the tax-credit program in 2009. Of those, he estimates that perhaps 150 remain employed, mainly in commercial-video production businesses like his own Full Spectrum Productions.

The association plans an educational campaign on the economic impact of the film industry and film tax credits at Iowa chambers of commerce and colleges with film programs. It will seek introduction of a bill next year to resurrect a tax-credit program.

Fuller disputes statements by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller that the state saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by swiftly freezing the program and investigating film projects.

He said the vast majority of film tax-credit applicants left Iowa almost immediately after the investigation began — because they didn’t want to jeopardize project timetables — and eliminated the liability to the state. Only a tiny percentage of the projects are now expected to move forward, Fuller said.

Some Iowa companies have shifted focus to steer clear of the tax-credit fallout.

Grasshorse, an animation studio in Winthrop, worked on four films in 2009, Chief Operating Officer Stephen Jennings said. Then its work dried up. Jennings and CEO Kathy Buxton, his sister, decided to refocus on new media, such as mobile and social media applications.

The company has shrunk from 20 full-time staff last year to seven full-time staff and 10 freelancers. It also has downsized from a large leased office in Mount Pleasant to an old theater building they purchased in Winthrop.

“When the credits were frozen, we had an opportunity for a feature film coming in,” Buxton said. “We would have been at 100-plus (employees).”

Ironically, some Iowans are still reaping the benefits of Iowa’s flawed film tax-credit program, even though they’ve left the state.

In 2007, Melinda Burns was wondering about the wisdom of obtaining a film degree from the University of Iowa, knowing how difficult it can be to find work in movies. The film tax-credit program helped bring the baseball movie “Sugar” to Davenport for filming, though, and she was hired on.

“After that, my career really took off,” said Burns, 25, originally from Alburnett. She now works as an assistant production coordinator, scheduling meetings, setting appointments, processing union dues and ordering equipment in Los Angeles.

Burns said staying in Iowa was not in her plans, because she is “not a winter girl.” Even so, she said the film tax-credit program provided enough work in Iowa to give her the experience she needed.“I have that tax incentive to thank for my career,” Burns said.

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