LOUISVILLE -- Star sightings picked up in Louisville in 2016 with Nicolas Cage spotted at the Louisville Zoo, Jon Voight in the Hurstbourne Lane Wal-Mart and Jeremy Irons at Louisville VA Medical Center.
Cage was here to film the horror film "Mom and Dad," with actress Selma Blair, and Voight was shooting a family-friendly action adventure film for Hallmark. Irons was here with cast and crew shooting the film "Monumental," for which he visited with veterans as research for his character in the movie.
Dawn Bierschwal, a Cincinnati-based producer and one of several behind "Monumental," said Kentucky has prominent locations - like the Louisville Slugger Museum - that are continuing to be part of the draw for film companies looking to shot in new locations. But the biggest draw for Louisville is the ample financial incentives Kentucky offers to film projects of all stripes, including features and documentaries.
"Kentucky has one of the best tax incentives in the country," Bierschwal said, and movie star spotting around town might become more common than you'd think.
Seeding a film industry with incentives
Since May 2015, Kentucky has offered the most enticing incentives in the country, with qualified productions eligible to receive a refundable income tax credit of up to 35 percent of approvable expenditures - an increase from the previous 20 percent established in 2009. Eligible productions must spend at least $250,000 in the local economy and those incentives don't have a program cap that many other states, including nearby Ohio, have, which ceases incentives for productions after they reach $5 million. That makes Kentucky competitive with states nationwide, including nearby Georgia and Illinois, which both have thriving film scenes and offer a 30 percent credit with no caps.
Since last year, a 17-member group of Louisvillians connected to the film and television industry has worked to grow and coordinate filming activity in and around the city and turn it into a sustainable business. They make up the Louisville Film Commission, a group of volunteers established by Mayor Greg Fischer in August 2015, after the state passed higher incentives.
"We're here advocating to grow Louisville as a film-making destination and establish Louisville as a place that can sustain a strong and vibrant film economy," said Benjamin Moore, an economic development manager for the city who oversees the Louisville Film Commission.
Members of the commission are the ones looking at various strategies and efforts to bring more film to the Louisville area.
"We are like deputies who talk with filmmakers when we travel to New York or Los Angeles about the benefits of shooting here," said commission member and Louisville-based casting director Mary Clay Boland.
Boland and others said that has involved commissioners working to promote Louisville and the state when attending film festivals, including those in Toronto, New York and South by Southwest. Some Louisvillians, including producer Gill Holland, have even made it a tradition to host a Louisville party each year at the Sundance Film Festival. Holland said January's festival will be the fourth such party.
But film incentives have critics
Everyone isn't celebrating incentives. In recent years, 10 states, including Michigan and New Jersey, have ended their incentive programs. Other states that once had flourishing film activities, notably North Carolina and Louisiana, have substantially scaled back. The changes in Louisiana caused many films planning to shoot there -- including "Monumental" -- to look elsewhere.
The backsliding of some tax incentive programs has come as tax policy and free market groups, including the Washington-based Tax Foundation and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, have criticized government support of these programs. Several studies have also come out saying incentives for film projects do not provide a robust return for states.
Kentucky filmmakers, however, say the incentives here are very new and need time to take root. Although Kentucky approved 56 films for incentives for 2016, the state hasn't yet received cost reports for all of them that have concluded shooting here. According to the Kentucky Film Office, producers have 180 days from the date of a film's competition to submit financial information.
For now, members of the Louisville Film Commission are sold on the economic benefits of the incentives. They've seen them work in other states. For now, they are happy seeing the uptick in activity just over the last year.
Nurturing workforce, infrastructure
Louisville Film Commission members also argue their work goes beyond bringing artists and crews to Louisville. Members say they want to support local entrepreneurs who get involved in the local film industry and bolster the infrastructure for making films - from growing a qualified workforce to having production facilities.
The commission has worked with the state to do some of this. Both the city and state's websites provide directories of crew workers that covers a range of specialties - from animal coordinators to video assist operators. Both also provide links to permits to apply for when shooting a film and a database of possible shooting locations throughout Kentucky, which includes maps, photos and other information for scouts looking for locations.
Mike Fitzer, a partner with Louisville filmmaker Archie Borders in the production company 180 Degrees, said the state has skilled technicians who have a lot of experience in commercial work, but not many with deep experience working on movies.
"We have enough people to support two movies at a time, but after that, we start to have to pull people in," he said.
That has helped set commissioners' sights on finding new ways to involve educational institutions in helping grow a filmmaking workforce. Boland and Fitzer said they have started talking with colleges, and they have been looking at how to involve local high schools to ensure there is a robust workforce in the area.