SEATTLE — What first comes to mind when you hear the name Forks, Washington?
Chances are it could be the “Twilight” saga, the notorious vampire franchise that captivated teen girls in the late 2000s.
But despite the series’ intrinsic connection to the former logging town and the Olympic Peninsula at large, there was no such loyalty to Washington behind the scenes. The Forks you see on the big screen is in fact the town of Vernonia, Oregon, and the majority of the first movie was filmed around Portland. Only two scenes were shot in Washington, and not a single one in Forks.
But that could possibly change.
House Bill 1914, which passed the state Legislature March 10, would increase the annual tax break cap for filmmakers to $15 million, quadrupling the limit to the amount of money that Washington businesses could deductively donate to support the state’s film industry.
For years, Washington’s moviemaking tax breaks have lagged behind nearly every other state. Of the 33 states with film industry tax incentives, Washington’s annual cap of $3.5 million — the statewide total that businesses could receive in tax write-offs — is higher than only Nevada’s $1 million. Meanwhile, California’s $330 million and Oregon’s $20 million tax caps end up drawing away movie producers with meaningful Washington stories, according to film industry professionals.
In 2002, the state Legislature created the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program to manage the funds and promote Washington’s potential to film movies, TV shows and commercials.
According to Amy Lillard, executive director of the legislatively commissioned nonprofit Washington Filmworks, the first questions producers usually ask when they’re deciding where to film are about the state’s financial perks.
“The production incentive program is the best tool we have in our toolbox to get the bigger-budget productions to come through and film in Washington,” Lillard said.
The bill, modeled after another tax incentive program called the Main Street Tax Credit Program, allows businesses donating to the MPCP to receive a dollar-for-dollar credit against a business tax liability of up to $1 million per calendar year, with a total amount of donations not to exceed the new $15 million cap.
To qualify for funding assistance from the MPCP, movies and TV shows must invest money into the state’s economy and, depending on their budgets, would be eligible for reimbursements of their total state investment.
Movies that invest at least $500,000 in Washington’s economy could receive 30% of it back with the stipulation that all funds awarded may only be used for employee benefits or costs associated with the film’s production. Washington Filmworks typically spends about half of its funds on wages and benefits. The other half is used for expenditures like wardrobe, set design, vehicle rentals and location fees, all of which funnels money back into local economies.
“For every dollar awarded in funding assistance, the approved production generates an estimated $10 of economic activity in our statewide economy, and motion picture has touched every district in the state,” said Julie Daman, the director of finance and operations at Washington Filmworks.
The bill, currently on the governor’s desk, pushes the nonprofit to award 20% of its funding to films being made in rural communities. It’s typically more expensive to shoot in rural areas, but as another incentive, Washington Filmworks can also award an additional 10% to the production’s original 30% reimbursement, for up to a 40% return on investment — which ends up saving filmmakers thousands of dollars.
The bill also aims to address racial inequity within the film industry, directing the MPCP to prioritize productions that tell the story of marginalized communities. These films would also be eligible for the 10% enhancement incentive, the criteria for which is still being developed. The measure also adds an equity committee and two co-chairs to the Filmworks Board, the bylaws for which are also still in the writing phase, according to the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane.
The bill also allocates $500,000 for job training and professional development opportunities for marginalized communities for the 2023 and 2024 fiscal years and $750,000 every year afterward. Washington Filmworks hopes to use the funds to expand its Media Mentorship Program, a pilot of which ran in 2021, placing aspiring filmmakers of color in one-on-one mentorships and directly on production sets.
”There has been this idea that Hollywood is kind of a network of who you know and that there needs to be ways to break that,” said Riccelli. “We thought, if we’re going to provide incentive dollars, that we could put some sidebars around it to really encourage both production in some of our rural communities, but also with folks who have been historically left out in some of these big paying jobs to provide them opportunity.”
Frances Grace Mortel, a filmmaker and photographer from the Philippines, is a past participant of the Media Mentorship Program. Since moving to Spokane in 2016, she has won numerous awards for her films but initially had difficulties finding opportunities with accessible heath care for her family and child support for her 6-year-old son. Considering a move to the west side of the state as the pandemic struck, Mortel says the jobs she’s gotten from the Media Mentorship pilot program have inspired her to remain in Spokane.
”With the media mentorship program being able to give access and sort of show the possibility that the barriers can be broken down, I think it has given us hope to stay and also continue our work with the community here,” Mortel said in an email.
She also stresses the importance of further diversification in the industry and amplifying the voices of underrepresented communities so that they may tell their own stories.
”I have also been fortunate to find community organizers and activists here that not only advocate for film and arts, but also for other issues such as racial and social equity, because you know, we can’t really separate those as part of a nurturing community — a place where I can raise my family,” she said.