Making movies and money in Virginia Beach

By Brian Kirwin

Pirates and Navy SEALs are battling in Virginia Beach these days, but only on the big screen.

Virginia Beach is playing host for the filming of "Captain Phillips," a movie based on the 2009 hijacking of a freight ship by Somali pirates and the rescue by U.S. Navy SEALs. The film stars Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks and is directed by Bourne Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass.

Hampton Roads is the perfect location, right? We have the ocean, the military and the talent, both for support crew and acting.

A few years back, though, that wouldn't have been enough. Moviemakers would have taken incentives offered by another state and given that state all the economic benefits and jobs.

Virginia used to be flyover country. Films were shot north, south and west but rarely in the Old Dominion. Movies with Virginia settings and Virginia stories were shot in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Louisiana and Kentucky.

2009's "Secretariat," for example, brought $30 million in economic impact to states west and south of Virginia because of an incentive grant totaling less than 3 percent of that.

That hurt, and it got me motivated.

More than Virginia pride was at stake. We were missing jobs and revenue.

I joined the Virginia Production Alliance, an organization of film industry professionals, and now I'm chairman of the Hampton Roads VPA. The VPA lobbied legislators for years trying to create incentives to make Virginia competitive with other states.

Film production is like tourism. People come to an area, spend lots of money and then go away. In their wake, they leave tax revenue, business income and wages paid.

In 2010, Gov. Bob McDonnell and bipartisan majorities of the House of Delegates and Senate put Virginia on the film incentives map, with grants from the Governor's Motion Picture Opportunity Fund and tax credits from the Virginia Motion Picture Tax Credit Program. Hollywood took notice.

I'm an actor. I'm not headed for Hollywood any time soon, but because of these actions in state government, Hollywood has headed here.

A Hollywood production in Virginia gives local actors and crew experience and networking that can launch careers. It keeps local talent working in Virginia rather than driving to Maryland or the Carolinas for weeks-long shoots.

It also prompts a lot of spending on hotels, restaurants and merchants for hardware, lighting, clothing and other supplies.

We get all this for the cost of a one-time incentive. It's an incredibly high economic return for cities and states that attract these film productions.

Sometimes, judging the return on economic incentives is a tricky business. Would some of the economic activity happen anyway?

With filmmaking, the correlation is crystal clear. Movies will be made. If a film is shot here, hires are made here. Money is spent here. That racks up some serious tax revenue.

If the film isn't made here, it will still generate serious tax revenue, but it will be for another state. Virginia actors and crew will travel to North Carolina, Georgia or Louisiana in a heartbeat for the work.

I'd rather keep the work and the workers here.

And with the incentives championed by McDonnell and Virginia's leaders in the General Assembly, we are landing these job-creating, revenue-producing film shoots. The economic impact in 2010 from film production totaled $344 million and more than 2,600 jobs. Last year's filming of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" spent more than $32 million, with an economic impact double that and jobs for more than 1,500 people.

The impact on Virginia's film economy is enormous. It gives birth to many independent filmmakers who are working on projects all year, every year in Virginia. It gives rising talents from our colleges and universities a reason to build their filmmaking futures right here in Virginia. It gives us a chance to highlight the beauty of Virginia while capitalizing on our strong, pro-business reputation.

Virginia's film industry is on the rise, and the financial return on the state's incentive program is demonstrably strong.

After all, how often does government fund something that pays government right back?

Brian Kirwin is Hampton Roads chairman of the Virginia Production Alliance, a statewide organization of film professionals.

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