KCamera Ready: Kansas City takes steps to lure film investment

jacobOpening in October, The Good Lie tells the story of four Sudanese refugees who struggle to make a new home in Kansas City.

Starring Reese Witherspoon, the film is a rare opportunity for Kansas City to be in the spotlight of a major motion picture. Yet, the local film community has mixed emotions about the movie. Although the story is set in Kansas City, the film was actually made 800 miles away in Atlanta.

“By the time we found out about it, it was too late,” says Heather Laird, a Kansas City casting director who also heads the Film Commission of Greater Kansas City.

Laird and her volunteer film commission rallied state and local leaders to make a pitch for the $12-million feature, but the effort was hopeless. Offices for The Good Lie were already opening in Atlanta.

It was disappointing, but not surprising. For more than a decade, Kansas City has relied on volunteers like Laird to bring film investment to the city. Yet, Laird and volunteers like her are simply too busy running their own production-related businesses to actively seek out and entice projects to the city.

“We weren’t going to conventions or festivals or actively trying to make those contacts,” says Laird, who owns Wright/Laird Casting. “It’s been all we could do just to be reactive and answer the phone and respond to emails.”

For Laird and others on the film commission, the missed opportunity underscored the need to have a full-time film commissioner promoting Kansas City. The local film community has been asking the city to fund a position like this for years.

Now, it’s finally happening. The city’s 2014 budget includes funding to open a film office with a full-time director.

Mayor Sly James advocated for hiring a film commissioner, and city leaders voted to make it happen.

“There is so much potential in Kansas City’s film office,” James says. “As the creative crossroads of America, we should be a key destination for all levels of film companies and production staff. We have the opportunity to enhance Kansas City’s footprint in the growing industry of film and digital media. Our community’s creative economy is vibrant, and this next step of hiring a full-time film commissioner will add to that momentum.”

City leaders and the local film community hope having a film commissioner will grow the industry, which already contributes more than $120 million annually to the Kansas City economy, according to a study by the Film Commission of Greater Kansas City.

Much of the existing video production work centers on commercial advertising. Some of the ad work supports the city’s national corporations and regional businesses. Other advertising production dollars are drawn to the city by the local wealth of ad agency talent.

“Our bread and butter is advertising, not the features,” Laird says. “We have a lot more big advertising agencies than other cities our size.”

The regular advertising work has helped the city grow a solid film infrastructure—acting talent, technicians, and rental equipment—needed to support multiple productions happening at once.

“We are a very self-sufficient industry here in Kansas City,” says Rick Cowan, a Kansas City producer. “We have four major rental houses with cameras, lighting, and grip equipment. Prop and wardrobe rental companies can be found here. Actors with talent are plentiful. We can only probably handle about three to four good-size productions at any given time.”

Beyond advertising, Kansas City also piqued the interest of reality TV producers. Laird says she was recently called by American Idol and a CMT reality show.

“Reality producers are all looking for the next interesting place and the most interesting people to star in their next reality show,” she says. “That’s where we’ve got something to offer because Kansas City is different and unique, and there are all kinds of interesting things here.”

Although reality shows may not have the same prestige as movies, Laird says the economic activity they bring is substantial.

“A big show like American Idol—they can come into your city and spend several hundred thousand dollars in a couple weeks,” she says. “It’s almost like a little mini movie.”

Many competition-based reality shows also showcase the city in a positive light.

“They run around and shoot lots of B-roll, and then they insert beauty shots of your city between interviews or songs or whatever,” Laird says. “You end up with an hour-long commercial about Kansas City.”

As the Kansas City film community seeks to continue growing, local advocates say having a full-time commission director will be a great benefit. The next step is convincing state leaders to bring back the film tax credit that has expired.

“The multimillion-dollar films are not calling because they know we don’t have a tax credit,” Laird says. “If we want to bring the movies back, that’s how it’s going to happen.”

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