Regions Central Virginia

Films pump money into state economy

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Print this page Catherine MacDonald

Spotting Steven Spielberg at a Richmond restaurant is exciting, but his “Lincoln” film is providing more than celebrity sightings in Virginia. Spielberg’s movie is one of two film projects expected to have a total economic impact of $46 million on the commonwealth.

“Lincoln,” which ended shooting in Richmond in mid-December, was expected to generate $35 million, while “To Have and to Hold,” which wrapped up shooting around Williamsburg in late November, brought in an estimated $11 million. Thanks to these two films, the total economic impact of film production in Virginia for 2011 is expected to be higher than the $344 million generated in 2010, employing 2,700 state residents in the industry.

These figures are the result of the jobs created and money spent by the film production companies. Rita McClenny, Virginia’s film commissioner, says movies shot in Virginia create jobs in existing

Virginia companies involved in areas ranging from post production to music. In fact, “Lincoln” snapped up just about every available worker in the industry, says producer Barbara Divisek, who had to bring in people from outside the state to work on “To Have and to Hold.” She hired “well over 1,000 extras.”

To attract film projects, Virginia offers incentives using its $4 million Governor’s Motion Picture Opportunity Fund and a $2.5 million refundable tax credit program, which exempts productions from paying Virginia sales tax. “Lincoln” also was offered in-kind contributions worth $1.1 million by waiving permitting fees and location fees on state property.

The commonwealth competed with Massachusetts, North Carolina and Georgia, all of which have better tax incentives.

“The governor’s support was key to landing the project,” McClenny says. However, she adds, monetary incentives were secondary to another Virginia strength. “Locations were number one,” McClenny says. “Mr. Spielberg said Virginia’s authentic locations lend themselves to the film. … I don’t think they could have done it anywhere else.”

Based on a 1900 book by Mary Johnston, “To Have and to Hold” takes place in Virginia, but producers were torn between the commonwealth and Florida, which again had better tax incentives. Location won out in this case because “Florida couldn’t be Virginia” because of too many palm trees,” Divisek jokes. Besides appropriate foliage, she says, Virginia’s film commission “is great to work with. They make it enjoyable to shoot. I’d shoot anything here.”

That is the kind of comment McClenny likes to hear. In addition to the initial economic impact of film production, movies can have a lasting effect in promoting tourism. “People will see this movie about Virginia’s important role and want to discover the locations on their own.” For example, people still visit Mountain Lake Resort in Pembroke, the film site for “Dirty Dancing.” “It’s been 25 years and ‘Dirty Dancing’ still pays off for Virginia,” McClenny says. 

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