A couple years ago, I was approached to Line Produce a low budget feature film in Mississippi. I was so excited. I had been working in television for a few years now and missed working in the indie film world. This also meant I was working with people I had never worked with before, in a state I had never worked in. This was going to be an experience, and I was completely excited and slightly intimidated, not because the budget was so large, but rather because the budget did not leave a lot of room for any costly errors. So… today I am going to write about lessons I learned on this project.
As a lot of us know, filming has started happening across the United States because many states are offering filming incentives. Many of these incentives come by way of tax breaks or tax incentives.
In order to get a budget made for this film, I needed to find out about the state Tax Incentives. These incentives were a big deal for our production as the state of Mississippi has a great return rate on monies spent in the state either by hiring locals or monies spent with local vendors. These incentives would save us thousands of dollars and that is a lot of money to a low budget film.
My first emails and phone calls were to the Mississippi State Film Commission. It took a while for someone to return my calls. I feel like it is important to write about that, because I feel like I should prepare people for when they find themselves producing an out of state project.
Whichever state you are planning to film in, the film commission will be a great resource, but your experiences will vary and it may take time to build a relationship. Most of my experience comes from filming within Southern California, so dealing with a small Film Commission was new to me, I expected people to return my emails within a day and to have all the answers ready to go, due to having every kind of filming take place in their community. This is not always the case, as this state, like many, are really just recently getting underway on their film pushes to get filming in their state and answers can at times, take time since some film issues will be newer to them.
In my experience with this particular film commission, it took some time. I finally asked my charming local Producer to help me out. We both tag teamed reaching out to them and finally my producer was able to set up a phone meeting with them. Once we got them on the phone and started a conversation going with them, we got the info we needed and I was able to complete the budget to make sure we hired the right crew and vendors to get our incentives. This also prepared us for all of the paperwork we would be required to turn in after we were done, and there was a lot.
Each state has their own requirements for what you need to do, and to provide them with, to officially have your incentives applied. I cannot stress enough how important it is to follow these requirements exactly. This is one area where it can cost you a ton if you do not follow the rules. One missing signature, or incorrect date could cost you. Be diligent about the paperwork.
One additional thing to add to State Incentives is that the State of California is working on their own, so keep updated on them if you are planning a shoot within the state. If you are in a union it would be a good thing to call your Local as they are going to be up to date on all the latest rulings.
Payroll goes hand in hand with the Tax Incentives, which is why I am including it here. I know it seems obvious that you hire a payroll company. Yes please do that! Do yourself a favor, especially if you have incentives at stake.
Okay, so what I really want to talk about when it comes to payroll and how it can be a challenge for out of state productions, is that you need to hire a company who is experienced in production accounting. Production Accounting can be tricky. Productions have nothing but last minute needs and changes. We hire people the day of and make deals on the spot. Checks are needed ASAP and not in two weeks in order to secure a location, but… when incentives are involved it really matters that the correct state taxes are taken out of the employee’s checks. This comes to play when you are hiring out of state cast and crew members. Make sure that the correct taxes are being taken out of each of their checks before they are signed and mailed out.
I also want to talk about accounting. Whether you are on a film so small you are writing checks daily out of a personal checkbook, or you have a 3 person accounting team on your show, I recommend that you have someone who knows Production Accounting. On this movie we had an accountant, but she was not dedicated to our show and she had never done production before. This made it very hard on me as the line producer to get cost reports and I had to be extremely on top of our spending on a daily basis. I also ended up doing a lot of the accounting work since I was more familiar then she was. I am not an accountant, so there were times we were both frustrated, as I expected her to know the swift pace and demand of any size film and she wanted me to understand the needs of an accountant as herself, with the many businesses she was juggling.
Insurance is another big issue when you are shooting out of state. Well, it is also a big deal in this state… but that is another post. I found out on this project that Insurance is such a different process in Mississippi than what I was used to in California. I was given a recommendation on a local Insurance company who had done several films in the last couple of years in the state and I went with it. I was so glad I went with this local Insurance company as they had answers to all my questions and were very helpful in saving money on what I needed to purchase for my production to make sure we were covered as far as Insurance and Workers Compensation. The cost of going with a well versed company rather than finding the least expensive company I could find, paid off. I built a relationship with my Insurance Coordinator and because he was so knowledgeable I was never worried about insurance. I knew that I was covered and I also knew that if something new came up, say something in the script changed, an added stunt, or a scene requiring a very expensive piece of rented equipment, I could call him and talk it through to make sure, insurance wise, we were covered.
As I stated above, the Film Commission is a great resource, especially if you are shooting in a state you have not filmed in before. If you are planning a shoot, give your local Film Commission a call and make a new friend. This friend could save you a lot of time and energy and…maybe allow you a smoother running production.
If you are shooting in a state like California we have the State Film Commission and then several cities have their own Commissions. A state like Mississippi that has not had a huge boom of filming activity is still under one commission currently.
Okay…so what to take from this article…
- Tax incentives can be tricky, really read up on them to make sure you understand them for your production.
- Get to know your State or Local Film Commission.