Alaska's film industry subsidy program draws questions

In the winter woods of Kincaid Park, an Anchorage police detective played by Jon Voight tells a greasy kidnapper to let the child go. Voight's breath steams in the cold. Crack! One gunshot. Then another.

Behold the opening moments of "Beyond," a low-budget crime thriller that premiered earlier this month at the Bear Tooth theater to a friendly crowd of Alaska politicians and local film industry insiders, stagehands and police officers. The picture, a supernatural whodunit, could have been shot virtually anywhere.

The producers chose Alaska, where a 3-year-old subsidy program allows eligible movies and television shows to be reimbursed by the state of Alaska for a third of their budgets. Among the things covered: star and crew salaries, transportation, set construction and wardrobe, editing and other production costs, food and hotels. The Alaska incentives are among the most generous in the country, according to a December 2010 study.

As other states wrestling with budget deficits roll back or rethink their own film industry subsidies, Alaska's program continues, so far doling out $13 million to a string of reality-TV shows and, increasingly, feature movies. Producers for movies big and small say it's a key reason they're here.

But the program, approved by the Legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008, carried a sunset provision that forces a review after five years. Under the law, the program ends in 2013 unless the Legislature extends it. So lawmakers now are being asked to pledge another $200 million to the program over 10 years.

In many ways, the film incentives appear to be a success. Producers spent tens of millions of dollars shooting movies in and around Anchorage over the past 13 months, drawing stars such as Drew Barrymore and Ted Danson, Nicolas Cage and John Cusack. Many Alaskans scored jobs as actors, camera operators and crew. Stars ate at local restaurants and stayed at local hotels, and film boosters imagine a subsequent wave of tourists.

Finally, movies about Alaska are being filmed in Alaska.

Sometimes lost in the excitement, though, is a simple, less glamorous question. Is competing for Hollywood productions, and the state spending on the effort, really worth the cost?

Tax policy watchdogs who have looked closely at programs like Alaska's nationwide say no.

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