In 2006, Washington started a $3.5 million tax initiative, the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program, to encourage the production of films, TV shows, and commercials. It was a great success. As Seattle magazine pointed out in a 2011 story, "Washington Loses Its Film-Incentive Program," the program supported 71 projects, 29 of which were feature films. Plus, the $17.9 million handed out to the film industry by the state during this period generated $69 million in economic activity. Despite its obvious success, the program was chopped by Washington State representative Frank Chopp in 2011. And the city hit hardest by this cut was Spokane, which saw 40 percent of its crew base leave for Portland, Oregon. The film industry would have pretty much died in that town had the incentive not been restored a year later.
"When the incentive came back," explains Juan Mas, a longtime resident of Spokane, and a film entrepreneur, director, producer, and vice chair of Washington Filmworks, the organization that handles the incentive, "the goal was to land a TV series, because the TV industry is what makes the whole industry grow fast. And we wanted to grow fast. We had lost so much ground after the initiative sunsetted. After we landed Z Nation, we have seen the industry return to the point it was in 2010."
Z Nation, which first aired in 2014 on Syfy (and is now preparing for its fourth season, which is being shot in and around Spokane), is about zombies in a world after the world has ended. This is the story: Some kind of virus has killed almost everyone globally. And those who survived the virus must spend every waking moment avoiding being bitten by a zombie. But there is hope in these end times. There is a vaccine that can help humans remain human after being bitten by a zombie. No, it's not an original story—but that doesn't matter, because lots of people are buying it.
"Before the incentive was cut in 2011," explains Mas, "Spokane was averaging three to four films a year. These, true, weren't high-end films. They were middle of the road—$5 million and under—and often going straight to DVD. But there were also some great films, like Wayne Wang's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. So there were strong independent movies along with action movies and Lifetime films. But the thing is this: When you have a TV show, people move and settle here in your city. It took years to rebuild this crew base, and we do not want to lose those people... And you know, it's not just about Spokane. People in the West Side [what Spokanites call Western Washington] are involved in the production and also places like Index [Washington]. Some episodes were shot there. So the business from Z Nation has a statewide impact. And the reason they are here is the initiative."
The bad news is the initiative is sunsetting yet again. It costs the state only $3.5 million to do this one simple thing, which, due to what Keynesian economists call the "multiplier effect," brings into the state much, much more money than the state spends. But we live in a world where all problems are solved by cuts, and none by investments. No one in power believes in investments anymore. It has to be austerity. In their world, a world that is not even capitalistic, no money is what money really wants. No money, in their thinking, makes money. Yes, this is pure madness.
"Losing the incentive will not only be a bad thing for Spokane, but for the state," says Mas. "You have to understand that the dollars being spent on Z Nation, which is shot primarily in Spokane, also go around the whole state, the West Side and towns in Central Washington. So the wealth is being shared across the state. Everyone wants the creation of jobs, and our incentive is a prime example of how an incentive should work, how it should be distributed, and how it grows an economy... Our film industry in Spokane is really booming again, and there are also a lot of people doing other film-related things, like web series and even a VR show. They are making those films here. We need to keep the incentive if we hope to continue growing."
The Motion Picture Competitiveness Program will sunset on June 30, 2017.