Attempts to change Hawaii’s film incentives sparked a feud between Senate leaders and the manager of the Hawaii film office.

Nearly a year after the Legislature put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a special fund to help local filmmakers the state has yet to put the program in place.

The $850,000 to provide seed money for fledgling Hawaii filmmakers was a rare scrap for the indie set from legislators who annually lavish Hollywood productions with tens of millions of dollars in tax credits.

The bill granting the funding took effect in July. But the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism still hasn’t stood up the program.

“You can put that squarely on me,” said Georja Skinner, the chief of the department’s Creative Industries Division, which oversees the Hawaii State Film Office.

Skinner said the division has been short staffed and hasn’t started creating administrative rules needed to grant money from the fund.

But with a new staffer ready to come on board, Skinner said the department will soon start rulemaking for the fund, officially called the Hawaii Film and Creative Industries Development Special Fund. 

Gerard Elmore, a writer, director and producer, is a founder of Ohina Labs, which pairs indie filmmakers with Hollywood mentors to develop short films. (Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2023)

“For right now, we anticipate having at least $843,000,” Skinner said.

That’s good news for projects the fund will support, but the challenge of getting the program off the ground shows a reality about Hawaii’s support for the film industry.

With rare exception, local productions don’t merely take a back seat to big Hollywood projects, they often aren’t even in the same vehicle.

Gerard Elmore is a local filmmaker and producer who founded Ohina Labs, a volunteer group that helps Hawaii filmmakers launch their careers by working with Hollywood mentors to make short films.

Elmore said Hawaii’s ecosystem needs both big productions that employ platoons of local workers and small projects where filmmakers can develop their own intellectual property and burnish their chops running projects, gaining experience in “above-the-line” creative positions. The tax credits. he said, are key.

“Without those tax credits you’re going to have a workforce that’s unemployed. That’s no bueno,” he said.

At the same time, a small outfit like Ohina could do a lot with a little help. “We could really ramp this sucker up,” he said.

But how to ramp up the local motion picture industry can be so controversial that public officials who agree in principle can clash over details. That’s what happened last session when lawmakers attempted to tweak the state film incentive to help create more local jobs, and build local film facilities. The proposal also would have raised a cap on the amount of money the state spends on tax credits annually, from $50 million to $75 million.

Capitol building.
State film officials clashed with lawmakers this past session over how best to support the Hawaii Film industry, but the chief of Hawaii’s Creative Industries Division says, “Building the workforce is what we all agree on.” (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

But the proposal sparked a feud among state officials, including two known to advocate zealously for their causes.

On one side was Donne Dawson, an industry development manager in the Hawaii State Film Office. On the other was Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz. The dispute turned so ugly that Dela Cruz and two other senators filed a formal grievance against Dawson, accusing her of lying to entertainment industry leaders about the intent and language of the bill. The lawmakers also criticized Skinner for letting Dawson speak out.

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Skinner declined to comment, saying the formal grievance turned the situation into a personnel matter. But Skinner said in a text that she believes everyone wants the same thing.

“Building the workforce is what we all agree on,” Skinner wrote. “More skilled workers above and below the line is the mission.”

Industry Employs Thousands, For A Price

One thing not in dispute is that motion picture and television production plays a significant role in Hawaii’s economy. Current and recent movies and television shows shot in the islands include CBS’ “NCIS: Hawaii” and “Magnum PI,” HBO’s “White Lotus,” Disney+’s “Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.,” and Warner Bros.’s “Aquaman” and “Lost Kingdom.” 

All of this creates thousands of jobs annually, although exactly how many is hard to calculate because many jobs are temporary. According to the most recent available data from the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry at any given time employs about 2,000 workers in Hawaii across a range of occupations.

For the third quarter of 2022, the bureau reported, the industry paid wages totaling $30.1 million, with average weekly pay of $1,137. There were 2,190 workers employed in the industry in July 2022, the bureau said.

DBEDT calculates jobs annually, using a method that double counts workers when they finish a project and move to another. Accordingly to its calculation, DBEDT pegs the numbers of industry jobs many times higher, at 10,841, according to its most recent data.

The jobs might be good — many are well-paying union gigs — but they come at a cost to taxpayers.

To compete with other locations, Hawaii courts Hollywood with production subsidies. Specifically, for every dollar a qualifying production spends on Oahu, the state treasury reimburses the production 22 cents. Neighbor island productions get 27 cents per dollar spent.

In 2020, the state doled out $42.5 million in rebates, according to the most recent date from the Hawaii Department of Taxation. That was down from a peak of $80 million in 2018.

Amount (in thousands) and number of Motion Picture, Digital Media, and Film Production Tax Credits Claimed by Year
(Hawaii Department of Taxation)

Another reality is that a lot of these subsidies go to out-of-state professionals. Hawaii residents get the bulk of crew and cast jobs. But Hollywood types significantly outnumber Hawaii residents in above-the-line jobs: as principal cast, directors, producers and lead writers. Department heads also tend to be imported.

According to a DBEDT study of projects getting incentives in 2020, out of 174 above-the-line jobs, 144 went to non-residents while 30 went to residents. Out of 264 department head jobs, 155 went to people from out of state while 109 went to residents.

Elmore says the key to getting more residents in above-the-line positions is to get more residents developing their own movies: writing scripts and directing them. That’s the only way to get above-the-line job experience needed to land jobs directing big studio movies, says Elmore, who works as a lead producer for Honolulu’s Nella Media Group when not volunteering for Ohina.

“They’re not just going to hand you the reins to the Marvel Universe,” he said. “You’ve got to create your own Marvel Universe.”

Angela Laprete, a Hawaii film executive who is serving as a producer on Jason Momoa’s “Chief of War” made for Apple TV+, has spent 30 years in the business in Hawaii and has seen how hard it can be to build the skills and credits to land jobs heading departments.

“You’d think after all these years we’d have more of these positions, but we don’t,” she said.

Even “Chief of War,” a Hawaiian story that includes two episodes in Hawaiian language, went to New Zealand for casting, Laprete said. The production later moved to New Zealand after maxing out the credits it could receive in Hawaii, she said.

She has joined with two other Hawaii film professionals — Brian Keaulana and Robert Suka — to create another organization, the International Cultural Arts Network, to help local film workers.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz supported legislation aimed at building Hawaii’s film industry workforce. When a state film industry official opposed the legislation, Dela Cruz filed a grievance against the official and her boss. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

DBEDT isn’t simply relying on groups like Ohina to step in. For example, the department’s Creative Industries Division is also working with a University of Hawaii workforce development program called GoodJobs Hawaii, Skinner said.

The division is also working to expand a program with a team of former Pixar executives that offers online courses in animation for people ages 13 and older. The program is designed to teach students how to tell stories visually and culminates with them creating a story reel they can use in their portfolios, said Elyse Klaidman, chief executive with X In A Box, which created the program.

Plus, there’s the $846,000 special fund, which has also been set up to receive additional revenue from the rental of film facilities. That’s projected to include another $300,000 this year, she said,

Advocates like Laprete hope lawmakers will step up with even more help during the next session.

Laprete said she watched last session as a bill that once had wide support devolved into acrimony between Dawson on one side and Dela Cruz and Sens. Lynn DeCoite and Kurt Fevella on the other. While the bill could have meant more money for the industry, it also could have increased accountability by, among other things, allowing DBEDT officials to make unannounced visits to sets to audit productions.

In response to the proposed measure, Dawson disseminated a 10-page critique of the bill to the Hawaii Film and Entertainment Board, a group of industry stakeholders.

In their grievance letter sent to DBEDT, the senators alleged Dawson’s critique “promoted a false and fear-based narrative.” It further accused Dawson and Skinner of using their positions to “deliberately create confusion and misinform” the industry leaders.

Dela Cruz and DeCoite did not return calls. Fevella could not be reached for comment.

Laprete hopes a visit DeCoite took to the “Chief of War” Big Island set will encourage the senator to make another run at legislation. The filming the day DeCoite visited included 1,000 extras dressed as Hawaiian warriors on a field of lava rock, Laprete said.

“She was like, ‘This many Hawaiians at work,'” Laprete recalls DeCoite saying. “And we said, ‘It could have been more, and it could have been longer.'”

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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