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All Star Castaway

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So we gotta have a big name for this story or it'll never sell. Someone who can pull in readers, a name people know. How about Tom Hanks? He's perfect.

Wait, what's the story? Think, think …

OK, Virginia's been a great state for film production, right? We have locations, history, talented people, a terrific film office. That's how we got movies like "Evan Almighty" and "Hannibal," and HBO productions like "Iron Jawed Angels" and "John Adams."

But other states are getting into the game with big financial incentives that are pulling productions away from the commonwealth and putting anywhere from 6,000 to 8,500 jobs at risk -- the people who gaff and grip and cater and wardrobe those disappearing projects.

Grim, right? So here's where we cut to the March 9 premiere of "John Adams," right there on Cary Street in front of the Byrd Theatre. Writer David McCullough, star Paul Giamatti, Gov. Tim Kaine and actor/producer Tom Hanks cross the red carpet, and here's where readers will get this palpable sense of irony, because "John Adams" was the last big production to come to the state. And that ended in June.

Massachusetts naturally put up a fight for the production, but at the time, that commonwealth's incentive program was hardly better than Virginia's. So the decision for "John Adams" came down to having the "freedom and space to re-create" the time period, Hanks says. "We couldn't have shot in downtown Boston.

"Because we had these wide spaces [in Virginia], we had the luxury of not having to cheat," Hanks says on the red carpet. He's fair to our Northern sister, though.

"Their incentives were good," he says. "So were Virginia's. Really it was a space thing." Virginia still has that going in its favor.

Now for the plot twist: After Virginia won the $80 million "John Adams" project, Massachusetts puffed up its incentive offerings, including — according to an article on NewEnglandFilm.com — "a transferable 25% Production Expense Credit." Meaning, a production that shoots mostly in that state stands to get a quarter of its investment back through tax credits, a significant lure Virginia probably won't adopt. (Virginia likes to have a balanced budget, the argument goes, and those tax credits floating around would make it more difficult to maintain.)

But Massachusetts did lure away Newport News-born Richard Kelly ("Donnie Darko," "Southland Tales"). He was set to shoot his film "The Box" — actually set in Richmond — on location, but got an offer he couldn't refuse from Massachusetts. The result? A Ukrop's facade is built in Boston.

"What's happened is, the business side is now outweighing the creative side" of film productions, says Terry Stroud, chief operating officer for Richmond's In Your Ear recording studio and registered lobbyist for the Virginia film industry to the General Assembly.

Decisions about where to film are made by the production's purse-holders, who want to get something back from the state — be it tax credits, exemptions or refunds — for the massive cash injection the film would bring to the area. The state benefits right away from the financial boost to companies that provide bagels and bricks and later from the tourism boost, people visiting the spot where Hanks tied his shoe.

Stroud's been wading through General Assembly policy since 1995 but says he saw the biggest push from within the industry for state support this year because the jobs are dwindling. People are facing the decision to change occupations or change states.

"It was fairly clear that the incentives were driving jobs somewhere else," he says.

Now the conflict: It looks like Virginia legislators will stay the course for incentives, maintaining the yearly budget of $200,000 for credits and extending an existing sales tax exemption. Massachusetts, by comparison, lifted the $7 million cap on its incentives.

You know who else knows you have to have the big names to attract the audience? Robert Griffith. The Richmonder's latest work, "Moviemaking in Virginia: Take 3," a documentary on the state's film industry, pulls some big names: Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Dave Matthews, Kaine — all preaching the gospel of Virginia's talent and natural beauty.

"Take 3" is Griffith's third foray into documenting the state's growing industry, completed almost 20 years to the day after the 1987 original. Griffith has been an independent operator for three decades, since back when he says there wasn't much of an industry here. He stuck around, working on everything from Thalhimer's commercials to feature films such as Sundance award-winner "Lillian." He's seen the industry swell — and recorded it. He screened "Take 3" during the legislative session and says the way to enhance incentives — to save jobs — is to "continue to educate, educate, educate the legislators."

And the loyal audience. "Take 3" is about to hit PBS before taking a tour of network television. So here's the story of the industry (and its downturn) beamed into people's houses. Right smack in the middle of the seven-episode run of "John Adams."

"What you've got now is momentum," Griffith says. "And to lose it — too long of a break and you could lose a lot of that." S



"Moviemaking in Virginia: Take 3" airs on PBS starting April 7. "John Adams" airs on HBO starting March 16 and runs through April 20.



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