When independent filmmaker Wayne Shipley shot his first two westerns several years ago – One-Eyed Horse and Day of the Gun – on and around his family’s farm in Jessup, he did so wishing he’d had the opportunity to apply for tax incentives.
After all, for many years Maryland has offered ample incentive packages to attract large productions, such as Netflix’s House of Cards and HBO’s Veep, which lensed interior scenes in Columbia.
Today, Shipley is blazing the indie theater and film festival circuits with his latest film, Bill Tilghman and The Outlaws, which will screen in late June at the Columbia Film Festival. He’s wistful when talking about Gov. Larry Hogan’s signing of Senate Bill 1154 at the end of the 2018 session, which calls for 10 percent of the current $8 million total package to be directed to the indie market.
For Tilghman, Shipley shot the interiors in nearby Carroll County, but exteriors in West Virginia. “But had the Maryland indie credits been available a year or so earlier,” he said, “I may have been able to keep most, if not all, of the $250,000 production in Maryland.”
Had more or all of Tilghman stayed within Maryland’s confines, the result would not only have been a 25 percent rebate for Shipley’s production, but also a boosted bottom line for several local businesses, as productions large and small purchase a variety of products and services to get through a day’s work.
“It was in West Virginia that we bought lumber to build the sets, and rented four houses and a country inn,” he said, “plus, we ate at the inn and at several local restaurants. On any given day, we were shooting with about 100 extras. This was no tiny undertaking.”
As of today, Maryland Film Office Director Jack Gerbes said the tax incentive offering for the indie producers “has been available for several months and we are excited that one local filmmaker has applied” and will be receiving a yet “to-be-determined amount” of tax credits for the production.
That said, “There are still several hundred thousand dollars available. We’re working hard to get the word out to the local industry and we’re looking forward to more indie producers utilizing the incentives as we nurture the next generation of filmmakers,” Gerbers said, noting Maryland’s industry luminaries, such as John Waters, Barry Levinson, David Simon and Matt Porterfield.
As the Small Maryland Film Tax Credit program will assist lower budgeted productions, the Film Production Activity Tax Credit Program, which is focused on high impact productions, continues to benefit Maryland.
An example is the economic impact of the six seasons of House of Cards: The series had an overall economic impact of more than $700 million for the state; in addition, each season the production hired more than 2,000 Marylanders and it also purchased, rented and required services from more than 2,000 Maryland businesses.
“What’s timely now is that, with fiscal 2020 coming up on July 1,” said Debbie Donaldson Dorsey, director of the Baltimore Film Office and vice chair of the Maryland Film Industry Coalition (MFIC), “we want to make sure applicants know that a change was made to the application process that lowered the established time of a Maryland-based limited liability company from 12 months to three.”
Dorsey also stressed that the MFIC has made efforts to “provide a boost for Maryland’s homegrown film industry. Our goal is to get more filmmakers involved in the program,” she said. “We have many independent filmmakers all over the state who could benefit from it.”
Dorsey added that the overall incentive program will not only receive $11 million in tax credits in fiscal 2020, an additional $3 million will also be added each of the next three years, too, until the figure reaches $20 million.
She described projects that qualify for the credits. “There are many types of film activity with many layers,” she said. “There are large productions, like feature films and TV series, on one end; then on the other end, we have ultra-low budget indie projects and many other types of productions falling in between. Taking advantage of these incentive opportunities is how we can build the film production ecosystem, then keep people here to make their projects in Maryland. We don’t want them to have to go anywhere else.”
Nor does David O’Ferrall, business agent with the local office of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. He thinks that simply applying for the credits “can be somewhat of an eye-opener for new producers as they learn about the process, which isn’t anything new,” he said. “That happens to major producers, too.”
O’Ferrall said “all concerned in Maryland” are on board with the new indie program, “because it is hoped that it will lead to the production crew, like gaffers, grips, etc., to get experience working on films that will one day lead to full careers in Maryland,” adding, “That’s the idea behind that part of the legislation.”
The program will lead to more reinvestment, too, “because a refundable tax credit of 25 percent on the direct costs makes it easier for new people to build their own brands,” said Keith Mehlinger, professor and director of the Screenwriting and Animation Program at Morgan State University and an MFIC board member.
Regional filmmakers are “under-recognized,” Mehlinger said. “The Baltimore area is entering an interesting time because the discipline of computer science is crossing paths with film and humanities, creating greater opportunity. Many of our students are making films to earn money for college by doing webisodes, web content, client-driven videos and short films.
“After they’re out of school for a couple of years,” he queried, “who knows where it will all lead?”
Noting that many creative people often “don’t understand [the need to spend time sending] all of the emails and memos you have to write to secure funding and get setup to shoot a film,” Mehlinger said the MFIC may have to run workshops “to get into the nuts and bolts of preparing to produce a film, then follow it up to offer more support.”
Mehlinger reiterated Dorsey’s point about this land of enhanced opportunity.
“Genres such as micro-budget filmmaking are on the uptick, he said. “I’m very interested to see how this situation evolves. [The new incentives became available] at the right time, because there are more platforms now than ever. If there’s a place and time for this to succeed, it would be Maryland, right now.”
While noting that people have often mortgaged their houses to raise funds to produce films – for better or worse – “With an incentive involved,” Mehlinger said, “it can be easier to pay the money back and even reinvest it.”
As for Shipley, he doesn’t know if he’s going to produce a fourth movie, but he does know that he has a new reason to give it some thought.
“We have a strong industry in Maryland and I’ll be interested to see if local filmmakers take full advantage of the incentives,” he said. “You never know when the next major talent might come along and do just that.”