Ohio taxpayers have given reality television stars, commercials, and movies nearly $44 million since 2010 in an effort to lure Hollywood to the state.
Blockbuster movies such as “The Avengers” and “Captain America” have been filmed here, and they benefited from millions in incentives.
But small budget films, reality TV shows, including “Vanilla Ice Goes Amish,” and car insurance commercials also take home cash from the state.
Film experts want to see more money funneled to the program because they believe the cash is building a movie industry in Ohio that creates jobs and benefits local businesses.
“Some of the movies that are coming through the state, people are all excited about it because a certain actor is here,” said Ivan Schwartz, president of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission. “What they should be really excited about is the jobs and economic development.
“It’s not about bringing Hollywood to Ohio, or Cleveland, or Columbus. It’s about bringing an industry,” he said.
Others, however, argue that the investment caters to fickle filmmakers who only shoot in the states willing to hand out the most money.
“It’s all about the price,” said Norton Francis, a senior researcher at the non-partisan Tax Policy Center based in Washington. “If California starts giving out more money, (films) will just as soon stay there.”
No money? Don’t bother
Roughly 50 movies, TV shows, commercials and video games have been made in Ohio since 2011, and area locations in Oxford, Hamilton, Lebanon, Dayton and Kettering played host to some of those productions.
The incentive program, which is capped at $20 million annually, pays for up to 25 percent of a film’s production costs and wages, as well as up to 35 percent for Ohio resident wages. A film can win up to $5 million in credits, depending on how much it spends in the state.
The tax credits the state offers to production companies are refundable. That means if the state promises $1 million for a movie to shoot here, the money first covers taxes owed on the project. If the film company only owes $400,000 in taxes, it gets a check back from the state for $600,000 to cover film costs like salaries or costumes.
Most productions get a check back from the state, after filming is done and their finances have been audited, a spokeswoman with the film office said.
For Hollywood to come to Ohio, officials must compete with 38 other states that offer similar incentives, said David Goodman, the director for the Development Services Agency, which oversees the program.
Louisiana, for example, has one of the most lucrative programs in the country. Unlike Ohio, the state doesn’t cap how much it offers productions. It handed out $250 million in tax credits in 2013.
States offer up the tax credits to draw filmmakers out of expensive locations like New York or Los Angeles, hoping they’ll be wooed into spending money in cheaper shoot locations.
“Anybody that I’ve talked to in the industry (says) they simply don’t bother with states that don’t have tax credits because it’s such a good financial windfall for them,” Goodman said. “We’re competing with any (state) that has tax credits.”
Despite the competition, Ohio has managed to bring big names here. Most of the tax credits handed out have financed large-scale productions.
The political movie “Ides of March” was among the first to bring Hollywood stars — George Clooney and Ryan Gosling — to Ohio under the program. The movie, which shot at Miami University and in Cincinnati, cashed in on $938,829 from the state.
Since then, “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” have received $15 million from the state. All of those movies were shot in the Cleveland area and had budgets of more than $100 million.
But Cincinnati and Dayton have begun to make their mark on the film industry, too.
Last year, the movie “Carol,” which stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, scored $2.9 million for shooting scenes in Lebanon, Hamilton and Cincinnati. The film is slated to be released later this year.
The film has been a launching pad for southwest Ohio, said Karri O’Reilly, an Ohio film producer who also sits on the Dayton Film board.
“It takes a little time for the word to get out,” O’Reilly said of Ohio’s program. “ ‘Carol’ was the first big movie that came into Cincinnati recently that mainly used an Ohio crew.”
She said other filmmakers heard about the good experience the crew had here and signed on.
Soon after, “Miles Ahead,” which stars Don Cheadle and Ewan McGregor, shot in Cincinnati as well as at a recording studio and old jailhouse in Dayton. The movie has been offered up to $2.375 million worth of incentives from the state.
“The Blunderer,” which stars Jessica Biel, was offered up to $1.02 million in state credits. It began shooting around Cincinnati in November.
Four additional films — including a John Travolta movie called “I Am Wrath” that will be shot in Columbus and was offered nearly $2.5 million from the state — have been approved for funding so far this year. Ohio managed to reel the Travolta film away from Mississippi, a spokeswoman for the state’s film office said.
Vanilla Ice, Lacheys
Millions of dollars also helped finance shows, movies or commercials that never made it to the big screen.
The state requires a production to spend $300,000 or more here to be eligible for incentives. Music videos, video games, interactive videos, commercials, TV shows and sound recordings all are eligible for funding.
The reality TV show “Vanilla Ice Goes Amish” follows former rapper Robert van Winkle — known to most as Vanilla Ice — as he learns craftsmanship techniques from Ohio’s Amish. The show scored a total of $365,137 in help from the state during 2013 and 2014.
Vanilla Ice isn’t the only 1990’s-era singer to have benefited from Ohio’s program.
A docu-series called “Lachey’s Bar” set to air on the A&E Network later this year got an estimated boost of $294,000. The show documents Nick and Drew Lachey, formerly of the boy band 98 Degrees, as they open a bar in their hometown of Cincinnati.
Greg Lawson, of the Buckeye Institute, a conservative think tank in Columbus, said the organization opposes tax credits. He was surprised to see some of the shows that benefited from the program and wondered how many would have filmed in Ohio without the incentive.
“Were they going to do the project here anyway?” Lawson asked of shows like “Lachey’s Bar.”
Commercials, too, get money from the state — especially ones that feature basketball star LeBron James. A Nike commercials that featured James and Cleveland will receive a projected $541,000 for filming the ad. The state also promised $92,978 to Progressive Casualty Insurance for a comical commercial titled “FloBron” that dresses up the Cavaliers player in a wig.
Smaller productions still have an impact on the region and put area film crews to work, said Steve Colwell, the location manager for Film Hamilton.
When a small-budget film called “The Echo Effect” set up in Hamilton last December and early January, other filmmakers started taking notice of the city, which boasts a population of roughly 60,000. He said the city likely will play the backdrop for another film in May, though he wouldn’t release the name of the film.
“There’s no bad publicity,” he said. “(The Echo Effect) is definitely spawning more projects. We’ve had three or four more leads (on movies) because of it.”
Hamilton, he hopes, will one day host about four films every year. He said Film Hamilton, specifically, will work on bringing movies with budgets between $1 million and $5 million.
When the 30 people working on “The Echo Effect” came to Hamilton, the crew kept the city’s Courtyard by Marriott busy during a typically slow time.
The hotel housed the crew for 21 days and catered dozens of meals, said Shawn Stidham, director of sales for the hotel.
“It was a tremendous time for us to have that business,” Stidham said. “There was a benefit for not just us, but a lot of the businesses around Hamilton.”
He added that the hotel staff now has experience working with film crews, which will help when movies come to the city in the future.
Films often return whatever they get from the state into the local economy, studies of the Ohio film tax credit program show.
A University of Cincinnati study last year found that “Carol,” “Miles Ahead,” and a reality TV show called “Renovation Row,” which shot in the area last year, spent $46 million on jobs, production and indirect spending for the films.
A 2012 Cleveland State University study found that for every dollar the state spends on films, a $1.20 is pumped back into the economy.
“That return is seen for businesses throughout the state,” said Candi Clouse, who wrote the study for the college. “So, when a film comes to town they buy everything from food to flowers. They’re also hiring Ohioans. Part of the return is tied to how many Ohioans are working.”
She will release another study on the film tax program later this year, but said recent films are returning more money to the local economy.
When Lifetime network shot “The Christmas Spirit” in Lebanon in 2013, crews often would shop and eat in the city’s downtown stores, deputy city manager Scott Brunka said.
“It generates a lot of excitement with our residents and businesses,” Brunka said. “The film crews do shop locally.”
At the Jam and Jelly Lady Shop, crews not only shopped in the downtown store, they used it to film. The shop’s owner, Sonya Staffan, played herself in the movie. She said the store got a boost in sales while the crews filmed here and a new customer pops in about weekly because they saw the shop in “The Christmas Spirit.”
“We still have, to this day, people from Cincinnati, West Chester and Dayton who will come,” Staffan said. “Some ask to have a picture taken with me.”
Crews also use local companies to rent security guards, cars, homes for actors, dumpsters, and portable bathrooms, said Schwarz, of the Cleveland Film Commission. Some buy lumber, paint and other supplies to build sets, too.
“People don’t know how many people and how many vendors — there’s hundreds of people — that benefit,” Schwarz said.
Films typically spend a couple of weeks shooting in Ohio, so they don’t often have a long-lasting impact on regions, Francis of the Tax Policy Center said.
“If you think about the industry, it’s going to be a lot of part-time construction work, a lot of part-time artistic work,” Francis said. “There’s an economic impact to bringing the films in, but I don’t know that they create an ongoing impact.”
Some of the impact of the film industry isn’t tangible, business owners say.
Since actors came through Kostas Restaurant in Hamilton to shoot scenes for the movie “Carol,” the restaurant’s owner, Young Kim, said customers have asked her non-stop about the film. She hopes her diner will see a boost once the film is released and might even name a menu item after the film.
“I never dreamed it,” Kim, who’s owned the restaurant for 23 years, said of having a major film shot in her restaurant.
Building an industry
Hollywood glamour in Ohio is a plus, but Schwarz said he’s all about bringing film jobs to Ohio.
“Having movie stars in town, that’s great,” Schwarz said. “But, that’s not what drives what we do.”
The Cleveland State study found in 2012, based on 27 films, that 9,018 full-time or temporary jobs had been created. The average pay for an Ohioan working on a film was $2,795.
Schwarz said he wants to see Ohio funnel more money into the program — his hope is $50 million annually — to create more jobs and business. But, he warned, more crew members need to gain experience to accommodate the increase of movies filming here.
Membership for the state union that represents nearly everyone who works on films, except for actors and extras, has almost tripled since the film tax credit launched, said Ken McCahan of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees 209. He declined to give exact numbers.
“I’ve been in the business since 1975,” he said. “I’ve never seen this much movie work in Ohio.”
He said the union is trying to offer more training.
Groups such as Film Hamilton and Film Dayton also are working to grow a better portfolio of locations to show off to filmmakers. Film students are working to get more experience, too, thanks to the films coming through the area, said Steve Bognar, a lecturer at Wright State University.
“The more films that come, the more people work,” Bognar said. “Some producers, five years from now, will see you worked on ‘Carol.’ That’s on your resume forever.”
First, though, the state film office plans to better regulate the approval process for film incentives. A state audit of the program recommended the office require films to meet a minimum score to receive funding. A spokesman for the agency said a new scoresheet for film incentives is being developed.
Schwarz hopes the industry will take off here in years to come.
“What I see is in five years, us having created a few thousand jobs that do not exist currently in the state of Ohio and bringing new businesses that do not exist,” Schwarz said. “But we’ve got to prove ourselves. We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.”