Danny Hellman
A quick hop from LAX, Oregon sounds like an ideal second home for Hollywood. Stars like Keanu Reeves can shoot scenes during the day and easily return to his Southern California mansion by late evening. Moreover, the diverse landscape--from Portland street scenes to the windswept coast--covers almost every imaginable set, from the urban grit of My Private Idaho to the final surfing scene in Point Break, filmed at Ecola State Park.

But for the past five years, the film production industry in Oregon has been steadily drying up. At first, the estimated $16 million spent in Oregon last year by out-of-state film production crews may seem like a hefty cash flow. But compared to $32 million spent in 1997, it's paltry.

Keanu Reeves did return to Oregon this past summer to film Thumbsucker, his fourth movie here. But that production--only one of two movies filmed in Oregon this year--almost never happened É or, to be exact, almost never happened here.

Over the past five years, for the majority of films and TV shows, Hollywood has rejected sites in the United States for cheaper sites in Canada or abroad. Consider the 2003 Academy Awards: out of the five nominations for Best Film, only a few scenes were actually filmed in America. Except for two days of filming to capture landmarks like the "L" train and the Chicago Theater, the musical Chicago was actually filmed in Toronto. Likewise, Gangs of New York was filmed in Italy, saving the producers nearly half their budget.

Why? Blame Canada!

Ever since 1998, when the Canadian government formalized a rebate program for feature films, TV shows, and commercials, production companies have largely skipped over the Pacific Northwest for cheaper alternatives north of the border. Under their plan, the Canadian federal government returns up to 35 percent of the film's budget. (Australia and New Zealand have followed suit, establishing similar kickback programs.) These incentives are tempting enough to ensure that 70 percent of all TV shows are now produced in Canada. Ironically, the recent TV movies about New York City's former mayor Rudy Giuliani were not filmed in the Big Apple, but in Toronto.

WHO PAYS FOR KEANU'S BAR TAB?

Only five years ago, the Portland area supported a small cottage industry for production crews. Statewide, 1000 residents were able to support themselves fulltime working as grips, gaffers, and set designers. But since Canada implemented its rebate program, that number has halved.

"A lot of people left are looking for more predictable and consistent work," says Veronica Rinard, executive director of the Oregon Film & Video Office, a low-profile state agency located in Portland and staffed by four people. Primarily, the agency is meant to help film crews find shooting locations and to push through any necessary permits. But increasingly, the job of the Film & Video Office is to convince--and, if necessary, beg--production crews to bring their business here.

Looking to keep costs low, the crew from Thumbsucker was ready to film in Vancouver, British Columbia. But at the last minute, Governor Ted Kulongoski stepped in and quietly promised to rebate a portion of their production costs--in a sense, he copied Canada's program. He dipped into a special fund, financed by lottery sales, and offered as much as $100,000 if they agreed to film around Beaverton and in the Sellwood neighborhood.

In late August, after nearly two months of production, Thumbsucker wrapped. But whether the film turns out to be a cult classic, like The Goonies (filmed in Astoria), or a box-office bomb like the more recent and imminently forgettable The Hunted (filmed in Portland), Thumbsucker has already made its impact on Oregon. For starters, it's estimated that the $100,000 laid out to lure the film generated nearly $1.2 million for Oregon's economy in the form of jobs, hotel bills, and set building (not to mention Reeves' bar tabs at XV).

"Whether it's two million or $20 million, it's 'new' money, from outside the state," points out Rinard. "It's job creation."

During production of Thumbsucker, nearly 80 local residents were employed for two solid months. Producing an estimated $4.20 for each taxpayer dollar spent, the Film & Video Office is a unique state agency, actually generating money for Oregon instead of usurping it.

"Even when films don't do well," Rinard politely says in reference to The Hunted, "they've already spent their $30 million here."

The only other motion picture filmed this year in Oregon was Mean Creek; also lured by a kickback scheme. In late August, this small indie production wrapped up filming in the thick forests around Estacada. It's estimated to have brought $500,000 to the logging town and surrounding area.

But perhaps the most lasting impact the Thumbsucker production will have on Oregon is a little-known piece of legislation: Senate Bill 2747. Thanks to the economic nudge of the film, SB 2747 was approved just before the most recent legislative session came to an end. A replica of the rebate package Kulongoski offered Thumbsucker, the bill permanently sets up the Oregon Production Investment Fund. It's a slush fund designed to rebate TV or film production companies ten percent of their actual expenses incurred in Oregon, up to $250,000 per production.

Lost amidst an $800 million tax hike and wide-reaching cuts to state-funded programs, the innovative bill was originally overlooked. Yet, in spite of its low profile, this new program is the highlight of the past legislative session, promising to bring back tens of millions each year to Oregon and to lure even more film stars to our area.

Finally, Portland may become Hollywood's home away from home.

The new rebate program will take effect on January 1, 2005. Thumbsucker is due out as early as next spring.