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Behind the Scenes of Alaska’s Film Industry

By | June 26, 2014 - 5:22 pm

Carolyn Robinson, owner of the Anchorage production company Sprocketheads, has worked in some form on most major production in Alaska (Photo by Joaquin Palomino)

Carolyn Robinson, owner of the Anchorage production company Sprocketheads, has worked in some form on most major production in Alaska (Photo by Joaquin Palomino)

A group of about two dozen people read an excerpt from the 2012 blockbuster Zero Dark Thirty at Anchorage’s BP Energy Center. It’s not a meet-up for war movie enthusiasts, but part of a professional training for film technicians and stagehands taught by University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Maya Salganek.

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“Just looking at the scene, does anything come to mind that would be a safety concern?” Salganek asks the small crowd.

“Bombs,” one of the attendees says.

“Right, you have a big boom going off,” Salganek responds.

The training is just one of many signs that Alaska’s film industry is growing. Feature-length movies, documentaries, and TV shows have flocked to the 49th state in recent years, supporting a multi-million dollar industry.

A big reason productions come to Alaska is to capture its breathtaking scenery. “We have the glaciers, the wildlife, the mountains, the coastline,” says Kelly Mazzei, executive director of the Alaska Film Office, a division of the Department of Resources tasked with attracting productions to the last frontier. “We pretty much have everything anyone would want in a movie except maybe cactus in a desert.”

Filmmakers aren’t venturing to Alaska strictly for its natural splendor. In 2008 the state rolled out a tax program to attract movie and TV productions. To encourage filming, the state reimburses certain production costs with tax-credits. So, for example, if Paramount hires an Alaska based lighting crew for $100 dollars, the state could give the company $50 back in tax credits.

In the last fiscal year, $13 million in credits were issued; many going to reality TV shows, an industry with a seemingly insatiable appetite for all things Alaska. Over the past three years, Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch received about $2 million to film in Alaska.  While that’s a lot of money to give to a TV show, supporters of the incentive program argue that it pays dividends.

“When I think of reality shows, I think of all the people and all of the services that they’re hiring around Alaska, the businesses in the dead of winter that wouldn’t have any economic stimulus [otherwise],” says Carolyn Robinson, owner of the Anchorage based film production company Sprocketheads.  “That’s why I’m a fan of reality shows.”

Not everyone, though, agrees the tax breaks are a good investment. Critics of the program, including a handful of state legislators, say the $300 million earmarked specifically to attract film and television productions would be better spent on education, infrastructure, and job training. “Everybody likes to be close to the spotlight,” said David Boyle, executive director of the government watchdog group Alaska Policy Forum. “But when you take away the glamour and look at the numbers, things don’t add up.”

For example, last year out of state workers made close to four times more money working in Alaska’s film industry than in state residents. The tax credit system was recently tweaked to encourage filmmakers to hire Alaska residents, but there’s a catch. The state doesn’t have a big enough workforce to fill all of the production jobs. Which is why the University of Alaska is training people to work in the industry.

For some it’s a blessing. Cedar Cussins, an Anchorage based lighting technician, has wanted to work in the film industry her entire life, but never thought the goal was attainable. “When I grew up the idea of being able to stay in Alaska and make movies was a pipe dream,” she says. Now, though, she can pursue her passion and stay in her home state.

Some politicians are trying to repeal or scale back the tax incentive program, but they’ve had little luck. The program is up for review in 2016. In the meantime, you can expect the amount of Alaska based films and reality TV shows to continue to grow.

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