Ready for a Close-Up 

Idaho Struggles to get a foothold in the film industry

On the surface, Idaho appears poised to become the next prime cinematic community. The state is home to a sizable technical industry, several Tinseltown titans and a thriving local arts community. And the signs are all there to indicate that the Gem State is ready to embrace a more active role in the filmmaking business. Idaho has a rich and friendly history with both studio and independent productions, and many of our state's media professionals are hoping for continued public support as the industry begins to mature.

But celebrity sightings and earnest well-wishes aside, Idaho has a long way to go to earn the title of Hollywood North.

In many ways, the filmmaking scene in Idaho is at a turning point, both enjoying some of its highest recognition and best reception in decades. But it's also facing severe sustainability challenges from both in and out of state.

The competition for support and to bring film projects to Idaho puts the state in direct conflict with neighboring states Utah and Oregon. Despite the recent passage of legislation aimed at luring film productions to Idaho and a strong statewide commitment to promoting and showcasing the art form, the struggle to develop an Idaho cinema industry remains an uphill slog. But the concerted efforts of many individuals and associations are starting to see their dreams come to fruition.

ALLURING LEGISLATION

On April 1, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter signed House Bill No. 592, offering qualified film productions a 20 percent rebate (capped at $500,000) on expenditures in Idaho when at least 20 percent of the crew is made up of Idaho residents. The required local workforce increases by 5 percent each year until the measure sunsets in 2014. After the termination of the program, the Idaho Department of Commerce will evaluate the economic impact of the program and submit a report to the state Legislature, which will determine whether to continue offering the incentive.

"This legislation establishes a program to grow the media production industry in Idaho," the text of the bill reads. "The Department of Commerce would utilize the program as an economic stimulus and to develop a media industry workforce ... Idaho is seeking to compete and build an industry in a global market."

Kathleen Haase, an industry specialist at the Idaho Film Office, believes the incentive is a critical step toward developing a valuable industry that is lacking in Idaho, but additional effort is needed to make the state a competitive market.

"We have to make up some time because we're coming to the table so late in the game," Haase said.

With 45 other states already implementing similar measures, Idaho will be vying for contracts with established film communities. The High School Musical series generated more than $13 million in revenue for Utah, which put in place a similar incentive in 2004. Oregon has hosted 13 feature films in the last two years since the state's rebate program began in 2005. These successes have encouraged Idaho's neighboring states to increase their programs and develop new avenues of attracting industry.

A 2008 press release issued from the office of Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman indicated that increasing incentives would be a top legislative priority in 2009.

"If we want to be the premier film destination in the [United States], we need a premier motion picture incentive program," the release stated. "We need our incentives to be more competitive to encourage the Utah production of all sizes of films."

Although a late contender in this cinematic boxing match, the Idaho Film Office hopes our state's celebrated scenery and enticing rebate incentives will bring film productions back to Idaho, which hasn't billeted a big-budget movie since Dante's Peak was filmed here more than 10 years ago.

"The film offices in individual states are economic development agencies," Haase said. "What we try to do is create an attractive environment in the state to lure productions to come to the state, spend their budgets, which are sizable ... and hire our crew here. We hope to create jobs, and we bring in economic activity in [the] form of investment in the state from outside the state."

The passage of the bill represents a major coup for the filmmakers who call Idaho home, but the battle is only half won. Although the measure has been approved, financial backing for the rebate still has not come through.

"We're still hoping to have ours funded," Haase said. "We're at the mercy of the governor, our department and the Legislature as to funding."

Initially, the Idaho Film Office received a flurry of calls in response to the adoption of the bill but interest has waned.

"We had to be very clear that indeed we have not yet been funded, so we're sort of in a bit of a holding pattern until that does happen ... [We're] ready to go out there in anticipation of it being funded sometime," Haase said.

There is hope that financing for the measure will be approved by next summer. Because the incentive is funded through the Idaho Department of Commerce's budget, which in turn is approved by state government, passing the measure is merely the first step in implementing the program. Haase encourages local voters to call their legislators in support of budget approval. While the bill received a good deal of support from local filmmakers and public figures, she hopes that the public will now take an active hand bringing the backing necessary to expand Idaho's film industry.

EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES

Another key component to luring film productions to Idaho is offering an educated workforce. The Idaho Film Office holds regular workshops around the state, helping introduce the public to the business of movies.

"Here, we're still working on developing our crew base," Haase said.

The agency has offered diverse courses, training professional film workers in location scouting, screenwriting, editing and working as production assistants.

Although there is no full-time film school in Idaho, there are production classes available through several universities. Northwest Nazarene University, in particular, offers a B.A. in mass communications, a major focus of which is film production. Boise State offers a similar program, although the emphasis is on documentary work.

But the Treasure Valley is not the only part of Idaho crafting new filmmakers. Just outside of Driggs resides the Idaho Film and Television Institute, founded by Dawn Wells—best known as Mary Ann from the TV show Gilligan's Island. The institute holds annual boot camps­—crash-course training sessions with industry experts who instruct in all aspects of production.

The increase of film industry work in Idaho will eventually require more educational opportunities for students who are looking to join the field. But like so many other new and growing business markets, the demand is not yet high enough for the universities to develop stronger programs. While the Idaho Film Office is also working with educational systems to offer film degrees, the advent of a full film program seems to still be a long way off.

YOUNG INDEPENDENTS

Like many young artists, Boise filmmaker Jason Willford wears several different hats. A university student who moonlights as a barista, he is part of a new generation of self-starting movie makers who are capitalizing on the decreasing costs of high-quality digital cameras and editing equipment. Whereas the film gear used for big-budget studio films can cost thousands of dollars a day to rent, DIY filmmakers nationwide are utilizing relatively inexpensive digital cameras, the majority of which cost no more than a studio camera's single-day rental price.

click to enlarge Chad Mathison, president of The Idaho Movie House hopes to expand opportunities for Idaho films. - JOYCE ALEXANDER
  • Joyce Alexander
  • Chad Mathison, president of The Idaho Movie House hopes to expand opportunities for Idaho films.

This technique has actually been used by several mainstream filmmakers to emulate a distinct low-budget look and feel, as seen in such movies as 28 Days Later (2002) and the recent Rachel Getting Married (2008), but the technology has facilitated a huge boom in the production of independent films.

"The whole digital revolution is a good thing because it's no longer specifically for the elite," Willford said. "It's for the common man so people can start making independent films really cheap."

With the availability of professional-quality tools to those on a budget, it's no wonder that young filmmakers—both hobbyists and those hoping to develop a career—are popping up everywhere. They're the ones foaming lattes while dreaming of plausible dialogue, calculating shooting budgets based on this month's commissions at the electronics shop and mentally scouting locations as they bike around town.

"Digital cameras and equipment have made it possible and accessible to do a great deal of video work," said Chad Mathison, a local producer and director. "Independent filmmakers and videographers can showcase those works online, which is amazing. We weren't exactly there, five years ago ... [It] shows that there's a whole new market that needs to be expressed."

Although a significant portion of the local filmmaking community networks through the many film festivals held throughout the state, the majority of networking occurs online, another important modern amenity.

"In general, at this point, there really is not a centralized or physical meeting place," said filmmaker Greg Bayne. "I think most of the connections these days are going on virtually. It's that way for me, connecting with artists and filmmakers from within the state and across the globe via the Internet."

Hoping to provide a physical gathering hall is a fledging theater called the Idaho Movie House. Still in the development stages, organizers have been looking at space in the Linen District in downtown Boise and are working to develop a viable business plan. They hope to offer filmmakers a networking outlet while increasing public awareness of the Idaho film industry.

"The Movie House is committed and dedicated to the local filmmakers and the local film scene," said Mathison, who also serves as president of the organization. "Networking can be developed through a constant stream of showcasing of locals films to the public, giving them the opportunity to get to know what our film scene's bringing. As for what type of community would be built by that: a flourishing one."

What the Idaho Movie House organizers hope will differentiate them from other community-friendly theaters such as The Flicks and the Egyptian Theatre is its focus.

"'Idaho only' cinema is an initial concept; one which we've expanded on, yet we also believe we're retaining the essential thrust that makes the theater so vital, retaining the necessity for the local filmmakers, as well as the local film scene," Mathison said.

He is hoping that other theaters in town will welcome the Idaho Movie House and help support the mission of providing an ongoing home for Idaho film. Theater founders have also talked with Tom Trusky of the Idaho Film Collection about screening classic Gem State cinema. Although the online community has expressed enthusiasm for the project, the best current opportunity to hang out with fellow artists is at one of the numerous local film festivals.

LIFEBLOOD OF AN INDEPENDENT FILMMAKER

The myriad of film festivals that have sprung up over the last decade is one of the healthy life signs of the Idaho filmmaking community. Since 2000, at least seven new film showcases have debuted across the state, from Driggs to Coeur d'Alene. While each is committed to the mission of exposing Idaho audiences to rare and diverse films, what differentiates them all are the particular niches they seek to fulfill. The Sawtooth Mountain Film Festival screens films about the outdoors and extreme sports, while the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival screens cinema that celebrates the human spirit.

As any passionate filmmaker will attest, an artist's true reward is having his or her movie screened for an audience.

"The thrill or charge of having it on a big or larger screen. That's something nearly all the filmmakers work towards, at every moment," Mathison said.

click to enlarge Tom Trusky has scoured the world for rare Idaho films, helping build the Idaho Film Collection. - JOYCE ALEXANDER
  • Joyce Alexander
  • Tom Trusky has scoured the world for rare Idaho films, helping build the Idaho Film Collection.

Festivals not only provide the venue and advertising for films, they expose projects to distributors and other producers, forming vital networks for the success of any filmmaker. Additionally, they help foster a public awareness of independent film and create a greater consumer demand. But the blood, sweat and tears required of a filmmaker is also necessary for those who produce these festivals, sometimes prohibitively so.

In September, the True West Cinema Festival—a volunteer-based labor of love—proved too laborious for its architects, and they announced that the festival's fifth year would be its last. Having showcased nearly 200 productions, many from local and regional filmmakers, cofounders Gregory Bayne, Josie Pusl and Travis Swartz (all active industry members) decided it was time to step back and refocus on their own business prospects.

"Running a festival is very time consuming and expensive," Pusl wrote in an e-mail. "We are all filmmakers and have other projects and career objectives and the festival was becoming a full time, basically volunteer, job for us."

But the growing and eager audience stands as a testament to the impact of True West: a community both more aware and more appreciative of the spirit of independent film.

"For four days and nights we created a little family that spent nearly 100 percent of their time together watching films, discussing films and partying," Bayne said. "Our mission was to do something that was relevant to our community in form and function, and I think we succeeded at that."

The organizers consider its final year the most successful, both artistically and in attendance, and they expressed their appreciation that the festival ended on a high note.

"I think people are really disappointed to see the festival end, which makes us feel like True West was indeed a success," Pusl said. "I hope that everyone who has been so supportive of the festival will continue to be as supportive of our future projects."

The i48 Film Festival—another Bayne production along with Andrew Ellis—is an annual Boise event. It's an entry-based competition in which teams are given a genre, a required prop and a single line of dialogue that must be incorporated in their film. And they have only two days to complete it.

While the quality of the films produced through the competition is mixed, the festival's real success is in gathering new participants, many of whom have never been involved in a film project before. The festival provides a unique opportunity for those who have lacked the time or opportunity to create a movie, and lets them try on the different caps worn by working filmmakers. After last year's festival the community was abuzz with a newfound excitement for local filmmaking and an eagerness to become more involved.

Similarly committed to showcasing and encouraging local cinema, the Idaho International Film Festival offers free workshops during its annual weekend run, giving instruction on such topics as finding grants and working with green-screen technology. While the scope of this festival is more expansive than others and screens features from across the globe, it harbors a similar dedication to education and exposure for Idaho filmmakers.

A robust festival circuit and committed audiences are encouraging signs of the public disposition toward film in Idaho. These weekend showcases foster a communal spirit of support for the industry. Whether the enthusiastic vigor that these festivals engender can take root in the long run, growing into a viable industry for Idaho filmmakers, remains to be seen.

NEW FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS

A good portion of the credit for the growth of the filmmaking community is due to a fairly recent influx of several movie professionals into the state. The energy of this new blood has helped galvanize much of the filmmaking community.

Haase has only lived in Idaho for two years, yet her work with the Idaho Film Office has not only helped secure the recent legislative support for filmmakers, but also has been instrumental in working to develop film studies programs at the state's major universities.

Boisean Heather Rae won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature at this year's Sundance Film Festival for her most recent production, Frozen River. She has served on local film festival boards and lobbied for the new legislation as well.

click to enlarge Jason Willford is one of a growing number of independent filmmakers calling Boise home. - JOYCE ALEXANDER
  • Joyce Alexander
  • Jason Willford is one of a growing number of independent filmmakers calling Boise home.

But working as a filmmaker in Idaho is a difficult task. Without an established industry or a widely accessible education program, not only does the state lose many younger filmmakers, but it also risks the departure of established media professionals who must spend long periods away from their homes and families in order to work. Some choose to stay, though, grateful for the benefits of Idaho living.

"At one point, I may have convinced myself that living in Idaho was a disadvantage," Bayne said. "But in the long run, it has kept me grounded and influenced my ideas, my aesthetic, my stories and has made me forever grateful to have the opportunity to work without the pressure of 'industry.'"

For others, the decision to stay in-state requires constant re-evaluation. Should the funding for the recent legislation come through, not only would it attract outside productions, but it also would allow filmmakers already living here to bring their projects to Idaho, providing for their security and allowing them to invest more time in their families and communities.

THE WRAP-UP

The Idaho filmmaking community is made up of a series of strange, and sometimes uneasy, symbiotic relationships. While the work of the Idaho Film Office is designed to create an environment that would lure non-Idaho productions into the state, it also allows the established industry professionals living here to bring in their productions, rather than work elsewhere. The office provides education to the local filmmaking workforce, which it needs to entice productions. In turn, the industry professionals work to foster local filmmaking through the development of festivals and providing jobs in-state.

But there has been some opposition in the local community to the new legislation. While its adoption has encouraged some filmmakers, especially those who work out-of-state, others are concerned about how the incentive will affect local cinema.

"Once everything passes, you're going to need a location release in order to use a building, image permits, etc. It's going to trickle down, and you're going to have to go through all that paperwork," Willford said.

Although the Idaho Film Office expressed belief that these policies would arise naturally without the new legislation, they also indicated approval of such requirements, which would help them to track a film's expenditures.

"We would totally support that," Haase said. "[It's] a great way to keep tabs on the productions that do come here, and monitor how much they spend and where they're spending it."

Willford and others have voiced their concern that the legislation will not only require extra policy—a hassle for any low-budget production—but that large out-of-state films will draw attention away from local filmmaking, which already struggles to produce work.

"What Idaho really needs is the right mentality and to be more prolific," he said. "If we're already making films, it's going to show the outside investors and crews that there is something going on, and that people are willing to be dedicated and spend all that time on a film."

It's a tricky balancing act that is being played. As the closure of the True West Cinema Festival indicates, many of the venues of public exposure for the filmmaking community have been built on the backs of working professionals. If the state loses its industry experts because it can't support them, those opportunities disappear. When the film office encourages policies that hinder younger filmmakers, it risks alienating them although they make up the workforce needed to bring outside productions. This same workforce benefits from the education offered and developed by the film office, and indirectly by the support it offers established filmmakers.

And then there's the public, who seem enthusiastic but not entirely informed about the local film scene.

"In general, I think the public feeling about local film is clouded by the marketed idea of what independent film is perceived to be, ie. whatever comes out of Sundance." Bayne said. "I do think there is a will in the community to support the arts, including independent film, absolutely. But it really is built upon the individual filmmakers and their projects."

The great hope is that the populace will continue to support local film even in the wake of a glitzy Hollywood fleet invasion. The Idaho filmmaking industry is entering uncharted waters, and the journey doesn't promise to be smooth sailing. With the makings of an attractive incentive, a developing educational system and a burgeoning body of independent filmmakers, Idaho may yet develop a strong and sustainable industry, one both committed to the progress of local film, as well as to opening our borders to outside productions. But it will require some careful navigation.

Idaho Film Festivals founded by date

2000

Sawtooth Mountain Film Festival

2003

Idaho International Film Festival

2004

True West Cinema Festival

i48 Film Festival

Spudfest (Driggs)

2005

Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival

2006

Schweitzer Lakedance International Film Festival (Sandpoint)

2007

Coeur d'Alene Film Festival

Notable dates in Idaho film history

1915

The Cowpuncher is filmed in Idaho Falls. First recorded Idaho feature.

1922

Idaho produces its first indie, Miss Lewiston, directed by the town theater's owner. Nell Shipman sets up a studio on Priest Lake.

1925

Walt Disney marries Spalding native Lillian Bounds in a Lewiston church.

1936

First Idaho film Oscar awarded for Walter Brennan in Come and Get It.

1937

Wallace native Julia Jean Turner debuts on the silver screen as Lana Turner

1941

Sun Valley Serenade puts the titular resort on the map as a Hollywood hot-spot.

1942

Bing Crosby and Buhl native Marjorie Reynolds debut the song White Christmas in the yuletide classic Holiday Inn.

1952

20th Century Fox releases photos of Marilyn Monroe dressed in an Idaho potato sack.

1956

Monroe films portions of Bus Stop in Sun Valley.

1965

Sun Valley ski slopes become the new beach party site with two forgettable films.

1973

Idaho Transfer is not filmed in Sun Valley, but at Craters of the Moon.

1980

The Being—Idaho's first creature- feature—is filmed in the Treasure Valley.

1985

Clint Eastwood. Pale Rider. 'Nuff said.

1997

Dante's Peak, filmed in Wallace, kills that "other volcano film" at the box office (Pierce Brosnan or Tommy Lee Jones? Not a tough choice).

1998

Smoke Signals wins Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival.

2004

Napoleon Dynamite makes gift-shop T-shirts cool.

Six Degrees of Idaho Bacon

In 1994, actor Kevin Bacon announced that he'd worked with everyone in Hollywood, either directly or by extension. Given this logic, Bacon has appeared in every Idaho film. Here are some of those connections.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004) starred Jon Heder who was in The Benchwarmers (2006) with Robert Harvey who was in Rails & Ties (2007) with Kevin Bacon .

The Grub-Stake (1922) starred Nell Shipman who was in The Fires of Conscience (1916) with William Farnum who was in Hollywood Story (1951) with Tony Barr who was in Murder in the First (1995) with Kevin Bacon.

Ibid (2008) featured Heather Rae who was in Disappearances (2006) with William Sanderson who was in Stageghost (2000) with Dana Barron who was in Saving Angelo (2007) with Kevin Bacon.

Pale Rider (1985) starred Clint Eastwood who was in Space Cowboys (2000) with Marcia Gay Harden who was in Rails & Ties (2007) with Kevin Bacon.

Ski Party (1964) starred Frankie Avalon who was in Casino (1995) with Vinny Vella who was in In the Cut (2003) with Kevin Bacon.

The Duchess of Idaho (1950) starred Esther Williams who was in Easy to Wed (1946) with June Lockhart who was in The Big Picture (1989) with Kevin Bacon.

Come and Get It (1936) featured Walter Brennan who was in How the West Was Won (1962) with Eli Wallach who was in Mystic River (2003) with Kevin Bacon.

Breakfast of Champions (1998)starred Bruce Willis who was in Hostage (2005/I) with Kathryn Joosten who was in Rails & Ties (2007) with Kevin Bacon .

Or Breakfast of Champions (1998) featured Lukas Haaswho was inBrick (2005) with Matt O'Leary who was in Death Sentence (2007) with Kevin Bacon.

Smoke Signals (1998) starred Evan Adams who was in Toby McTeague (1986) with Stephanie Morgenstern who was in Taking Liberty (1993) with Eric Close who was in Saving Angelo (2007) with Kevin Bacon.

Indiana Jones of Idaho Film

Tucked in a back office of the Hemingway Western Studies Center at Boise State, Tom Trusky has spent 20 years gathering and preserving early and modern examples of Idaho filmmaking. The Idaho Film Collection now boasts the world's largest accumulation of Gem State film pioneer Nell Shipman's productions, many of which had been lost. The collection also houses posters, correspondence and even a promotional T-shirt from the nearly 100 years of Idaho film history.

click to enlarge JOYCE ALEXANDER

Begging, bartering and, when funded, buying, the accumulation of these relics has been no easy task. Many of these films had disappeared from the United States, and sleuthing them out worldwide required tact, diplomacy and perseverance. In one instance, Trusky had to wait for the end of the Cold War to get hold of a set of reels tucked away in Russia. Even after the onset of the glasnost era, the archivist seemed reluctant to copy and send the film, until Trusky bribed him with a print of the famous Marilyn Monroe "potato sack" photo. The reels were released shortly thereafter. Sadly, only half of the film was preserved.

"It's so funny," Trusky said, recalling the hassle. "Moscow, Russia, to Moscow, Idaho."

Dealing with older productions printed on perishable film requires adopting a thick skin. "Some films are incomplete, but I'll take what I can get."

Besides their cinematic import, the collection's films have been used by the U.S. Forest Service to measure old forest growth and lake levels as well as studied by attorneys to settle land disputes.

"Who would think litigation would depend on some sort of Hollywood cowboy and Indian story?" Trusky said. "That's what convinces me that the films are interesting for what they show about the state."

While rumors of missing or presumed destroyed films at times come to nothing, Trusky remains hopeful that they someday will come to light.

"There is a chance that some of these films are in private hands," he says. "I really suspect that someday in a private collection we'll find that missing print."

And when that day comes, you can be sure he'll be there, ready to bring it home to Idaho.

— Jeremiah Robert Wierenga

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