- Special Projects
Hawaii taxpayers have doled out tens of millions of dollars in recent years to help pay for productions like Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic World,” Walt Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and the game show “Wheel of Fortune.”
The content of these productions had nothing to do with Hawaii, and none of the principal cast was Native Hawaiian, but the projects were made at least partly in Hawaii and thus qualified for state tax credits administered by the Hawaii Film Office.
Now an independent filmmaker who has made a movie telling a Hawaiian story, featuring what he says is a mostly Native Hawaiian and Polynesian cast, is crying foul. Tim Chey, producer and director of a historical drama about Hawaii’s Chiefess Kapiolani, an early Hawaiian convert to Christianity, says the state has refused to grant tax credits his film has earned.
Chey, who is also a Los Angeles attorney, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Hawaii. The complaint names Donne Dawson, the state’s film commissioner, Benita Brazier, a high-level economic development specialist, and the film office.
Dawson did not return calls from Civil Beat. Christine Hirasa, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, declined to comment.
The complaint calls the film office’s actions “the most dishonorable” Chey has encountered in 22 years of making movies. In an interview, Chey said he’s dealt with film offices in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida and New Mexico.
“Here the filmmaker shot a movie that would honor a Hawaiian Chiefess, provides good-paying jobs to Hawaiian/Polynesians, and the Hawaii Film Office back-stabbed him by deceiving him and playing little juvenile high-school games no other film office of any state would dare to do,” the lawsuit says.
Chey’s film credits include a slew of inspirational, faith-based movies featuring accomplished actors like Stephen Baldwin, Malcolm McDowell and Cuba Gooding Jr. The movie in dispute, “The Islands,” stars the Oscar winner Mira Sorvino as a missionary who helps convert Chiefess Kapiolani to Christianity. It’s due in theaters in March, Chey said.
Chey’s suit includes claims related to a purported breach of contract involving the tax credits. It also alleges the film office discriminated against his film because it shows how a prominent Native Hawaiian helped establish Christianity in the islands in the 1800s. According to the suit, Chey received death threats from people who objected to the film’s content, which includes a scene in which Kapiolani defies the Hawaiian goddess Pele and descends into a volcano to test her newfound Christian faith.
At one point before production, the suit says, Chey received “a strange message” from an employee of the film office expressing concerns about the movie.
“This is a complete violation of Filmmaker’s 1st Amendment rights for a government agency to inquire about the content of a movie — it’s almost unheard of,” the suit says. “Imagine a California agency calling a Hollywood studio and ‘inquiring’ about the content of the horror movie ‘The Nun.’ The outrage would be worldwide. This is no different.”
“It’s not the history they want told,” Chey said in an interview. “But I’m sorry. It happened.”
Chey says he’s submitted all the required paperwork, including records of cancelled checks provided by Bank of Hawaii, but that the film office has nonetheless refused to honor his application.
The suit comes just over a year after Gov. David Ige signed a bill extending the tax credit program, which is one of Hawaii’s most generous business tax incentives.
Although technically a tax credit, the incentive is effectively a rebate. Qualifying productions on Oahu get 20 percent of their production expenditures back from the state; films based on neighbor islands get 25 percent back.
The rebate applies to money paid to vendors located out of state as well as those in Hawaii. It also applies to all cast and crew, including nonresident, marquee stars and directors, who typically get housed in posh accommodations while filming and earn mammoth paychecks, all subsidized by Hawaii taxpayers.
According to the tax credit law, a spectrum of productions qualify for the incentive, including not just feature-length motion pictures and television series, but also commercials, music videos, interactive games and television series pilots. The law doesn’t say much about the content of qualifying productions, although they don’t include pornographic productions, local news shows and televised sporting events.
The program cost Hawaii’s general fund about $40 million in 2015, according to the Hawaii Department of Taxation’s 2017 report on tax credits. That was more than twice the $19.5 million in tax credits the state paid to landlords who provided affordable housing to low-income residents that year, the department said.
Starting in 2019, total movie rebates will be capped at $35 million annually.
Compared to the big rebates the state pays blockbuster movies and television series like “Hawaii Five-0,” Chey said his credit request is minuscule. He said he hasn’t drawn a salary for producing and directing the movie, so he’s not asking Hawaii taxpayers to subsidize his pay as they do other directors. Chey declined to say how much the movie cost to make, but said it was small compared to the big studio movies.
“They’re giving millions back to ‘Jurassic World,’” he said. “And they won’t even give us a bowl of porridge.”
Chey also said he’s tried to do the right thing in terms of casting at a time when producers making movies in Hawaii and elsewhere have been criticized for hiring Caucasian actors to portray Polynesian or Asian characters.
The director Cameron Crowe, for example, incited a storm of controversy when he cast Emma Stone as Allison Ng, a Chinese-Hawaiian character, in the 2015 movie “Aloha,” which was filmed in Hawaii.
“Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Robert Zemeckis (director) and Randall Wallace (writer) are not Hawaiian,” Hawaiian activist M. Healani Sonoda-Pale wrote recently in Civil Beat. “They cannot adequately tell our story without tainting it with their own foreign lens and perspective. They can only disparage a great Hawaiian man.”
Chey said more than 98 percent of his cast members are Native Hawaiian and Polynesian. Teuira Shanti Napa, who plays the lead role of Chiefess Kapiolani, is from Rarotonga and goes to college at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. Umi Perkins, a Harvard-educated Native Hawaiian scholar, co-wrote the script.
Chey shot much of the film at Kualoa Ranch on Oahu, he said. He used union actors, and although the crew was nonunion, Chey said he paid crew members as much as $500 to $700 per day.
Chey said he followed procedures outlined by the film office to qualify for the tax credits. He submitted a project registration form before production started, in October 2017, he said.
And he said he submitted a completed production report documenting expenditures after the movie finished filming, along with vendor lists and other documentation of expenditures.
Emails submitted as exhibits in the lawsuit show Brazier asking Chey to revise some documents, which Chey appears to do, according to the emails. But the emails indicate that a communication breakdown occurred in early 2018 and into the summer, as Chey wrote emails to Brazier and Margaret Ahn, a deputy attorney general, asking about the status of the rebate. The emails indicate that Chey was not getting a response from the film office.
“I cannot be treated any differently than ‘Jurassic World,’ ‘Kong: Skull Island,’ or any Hollywood movie,” Chey wrote at one point, showing increasing agitation at the apparent lack of response from the office. “I will subpeona and depose the producers of all the movies shot in Hawaii should we enter into litigation.”
Although Chey said he hasn’t started sending subpoenas to other producers to see how the film office treated their applications for tax credits, a 2016 audit of the tax credit program showed that the office has hardly been a stickler for detail when awarding credits to producers.
For instance, the audit looked at 25 productions the office certified for tax credits in 2014 and 2015 and found that the office approved seven project registration forms even though the forms were submitted after a deadline for submission. In one instance, the registration form was received more than a year late, the audit said. The audit also found the office accepted two production reports submitted after a 90-day deadline.
Chey said the audit report shows the office has been far more accommodating to other productions than they have been with him.
“I’ve done everything by the book,” he said.
There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing unbiased, investigative journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?