Film exec returns home to sell state: New tax credits helpful, but not enough to make Indiana stand out as movie venue

April 14, 2008

When Erin Newell was growing up in Greenwood, she and a friend would swipe her dad's video camera and make movies in the basement. As a student at Ball State University, she studied filmmaking. And when she graduated, she was out like a shot to Los Angeles.

Now, nearly nine years later-after scoring production and assisting credits on movies that even everyday folks have heard of-she's back in Indiana, helping to beef up the state's film-production industry so others might not have to leave for Tinseltown.

"I went to L.A. because I thought I had to go there to fulfill my dream," said Newell, 31.

Last fall, she took over as director of Film Indiana, an Indiana Economic Development Corp. unit charged with fostering the state's film and video production business. Newell works to help local firms grow even as she tries to persuade mostly L.A.-based productions to give Indiana a shot.

Although California has long been the epicenter of the industry, others states-and Toronto-have been throwing money at filmmakers in the hopes of attracting some of the business. But Indiana's offerings have lagged, and production companies here suffered as local talent moved to cities with more stable work.

"The industry is leaving California," Newell said. "I was thinking, [the industry] could go to Indiana and that would really be my dream come true."

Newell will have a new tool to work with come July 1-a 15-percent tax credit for production companies that spend money on projects in Indiana.

Bright lights, big city

When Newell took off for the West Coast two weeks after graduating from college in 1999, she quickly ran into harsh reality: Thousands of would-be moviemakers like her were looking to get noticed.

She started out as an unpaid intern and worked her way up the ranks. Her first gigs were at Kopelson Entertainment, a production company that makes films financed by big studios-including "Platoon" and "Seven."

First as a receptionist, then as an executive's assistant, Newell got to learn about how filmmaking works from the inside.

"I had access to all the confidential files," Newell said. Her boss would often leave, she said, saying on the way out the door that Newell had a choice: File the folders or read through them.

"Then she winked and walked away," Newell said. "I was really schooling myself on what the industry was about."

Newell then moved to Level 1 Enter- tainment. Her first big-production experience came with the 2006 movie "Grandma's Boy," a comedy about a 35-year-old video game tester forced to move in with his grandmother, played by Doris Roberts of "Everybody Loves Raymond" fame. She also worked on "Rendition," a 2007 thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon, and got her first producing credit on this year's "Strange Wilderness."

During shoots, Newell easily worked 15-hour days and was always on call. Although she was taking on more responsibilities, Newell missed Indiana.

"I turned 30 and said, 'This is my life. This is my work schedule.' And I wasn't satisfied," she said. "I missed my family and I missed my friends."

Back home again

Newell decided to come home, even before she had a job.

When she arrived in 2007, Newell called around to set up interviews and introduce herself. Eventually, she heard about Film Indiana, which was looking for a full-time director.

She started in November and hit the ground running, industry insiders said.

"This is the first time since the film commission was begun in the early 1980s that the state has hired someone with a true background in film production," said Greg Malone, president of the Indiana Media Industry Network, a local trade group that advocates for film, video and music companies. Malone also owns Indianapolis-based Road Pictures Inc.

Newell brings a producer's vantage point-and a fat Rolodex of L.A. contacts-to discussions about how to grow the industry.

"In meetings I've had with her, her experience shines through," Malone said.

Indianapolis filmmaker Justin Escue goes way back with Newell-they were classmates at Ball State. Escue, who produced "Open Mic'rs" and "Saving 'Star Wars,'" is developing a feature-length film about the first running of the Indianapolis 500 through his company, My First Bike Productions Inc.

He said he's glad to see the state investing in a full-time position to lead its film efforts-and to see Newell in the post. The industry has its own lingo and to have a leader that can talk the talk is vital, Escue said.

"When someone in the industry calls to ask about a location or talent, you need someone who can respond in a way they relate to," he said. "Erin is very down to earth but understands the L.A. mentality and can navigate their world."

Uphill battle

The main bait Newell will have to lure productions is the state's new and improved tax incentives, which take effect July 1. For years, Indiana has offered a sales tax credit on production equipment, which paled in comparison to other states' perks. Indiana also offered a tax credit equal to as much as 10 percent of filming costs, but each production had to ask the IEDC for the incentives.

Soon, film, commercial, radio and music production companies will get a tax credit equal to15 percent of their production costs for most projects. If the credit exceeds the production company's tax burden, it gets a check from the state for the difference.

It took industry backers years to get the tax credit on the books, as bills passed the House but not the Senate. When a measure calling for the 15-percent credit finally passed both chambers in 2007, Gov. Mitch Daniels vetoed it, calling the credits overly generous. Early this year, the Legislature overturned the veto but capped total credits at $5 million per year.

"Now we're on the map," a good first step, Newell said. "This is just us waving our hands in the air, saying, 'We're here and we welcome this industry.'"

Despite the progress, Indiana still lags other states. Michigan's governor just OK'd a new law giving film productions there a 40-percent tax credit, for example. Illinois offers 20 percent.

Indiana has lost attempts to land the majority of filming for 2007's "Home of the Giants," starring Haley Joel Osment and 2007's "An American Crime," about a local murder case, due to its weak benefit.

"Our incentives will not put us at the head of the pack," Malone said. "There's nothing that's going to turn all of Hollywood's heads."

Even so, it may help bolster locally based companies, stabilize the local talent pool, and build momentum.

"We will not see overnight, instant results," Malone said, but the state may be able to get productions shooting in Illinois or Michigan to use Indiana locations for part of their films or attract smaller projects.

Newell is hitting the pavement, nonetheless. She's working with local tourism bureaus to beef up the state's database of potential film locations, and she was in California recently pitching Indiana's scenery at a trade show where about 3,000 film executives were scouting scenic locales.

And when she heard Ridley Scott's production company had snapped up the script for "Low Dwellers," a drama set in Indiana in the 1980s, she reached out to let producers know about options in the state.

But mostly she responds to requests for information.

"My job is to make Indiana as simple and user-friendly for filmmakers as possible," she said.
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