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The Slippery Script

Petersburg's New Millennium Studios downsizes while Virginia seeks to rejuvenate its status in the eyes of Hollywood.



There was considerable cheer May 14 when Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that “Loving,” a movie about the landmark legal case involving interracial marriage in Virginia during the Jim Crow era, would be filmed in the state.

Winning such movie projects “helps build the new Virginia economy by generating new revenues, creating good-paying jobs,” McAuliffe said.

But the news is overshadowed by some gritty facts: Virginia is far behind the curve attracting film and television production. The state ranks in the bottom third of states for the amount of tax credits made available for movies and television shows.

Georgia spent $200 million on credits for films and television shows last year. North Carolina spent $17 million before ratcheting down its cap for movie credits to $10 million last year. New York has a $475 million tax credit cap. Some states have no cap.

Virginia’s tax credit cap has recently increased to a miserly $6.5 million.

“When the phone rings, the first question isn’t what nice locales do you have, it’s ‘what do you have in the pool,’” says Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office. Competition is stiff because there are 300 film commissions around the world and in 40 states in this country.

Virginia had success with Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which was shot in Richmond and Petersburg. Other recent projects include AMC’s “Turn” series about espionage in the Revolutionary War, “Ithaca,” produced by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and “Mercy Street,” set in a Civil War hospital.

But those projects haven’t been enough to save New Millennium Studios in Petersburg. For nearly 18 years, it’s been the state’s only full-service production studio. Parts of “Lincoln” and “The Oval Office” were shot there.

Veteran actors and film producers Tim and Daphne Maxwell Reid recently sold the studio and its 60 acres of land to Four Square Property Management LLC of Chester for $1.48 million.

“The paradigm has shifted in the film business,” Daphne Maxwell Reid says. “They’re shooting on location and not in big studios. We really didn’t need all that land.” She says they hope to relocate to a smaller production studio near or in Richmond.

Edmunds says he’s fine getting smaller productions. He’d prefer seeing money being spread among five smaller movies than one big production. But he says the lack of tax credits is a challenge, putting Virginia at a competitive disadvantage and likely keeping large movies looking elsewhere.

Because of the liberal tax credits offered by Georgia and Louisiana, Reid says, Atlanta and New Orleans have fast-growing studios that are taking a lot of the work that used to be done in Hollywood.

“The English are coming over,” Reid says, noting that the BBC does production in Atlanta. Actor and mega-producer Tyler Perry also plans to build a large production studio there, in the suburbs or at 500-acre Fort McPherson, a former Army post.

Georgia is so hot for films that it tried to take “Lincoln” away from Virginia, even though the state had worked for years to win the movie. The acclaimed film, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis and involved hundreds of local extras and crew, was the target of aggressive Georgia state film executives — even while its production preliminaries in Virginia where well underway.

“Georgia said they’d love to steal our ‘Lincoln’ movie from us,” Edmunds says. The Peach State might have put up $10 million to $11 million. Virginia offered a total of $3.5 million.

“Lincoln” stayed in Virginia, adding $35 million in immediate expenditures by cast purchases and other buys, and another $65 million in total economic impact, Edmund says.

“Movie spending is like tourism spending,” he says. “It’s easy. They come in, buy food, book hotel rooms and then leave without requiring schools, roads or other services.”

But such spending has been hotly debated by Republicans and Democrats alike, with concerns about return on investment. When the House of Delegates considered boosting Virginia’s tax credits in 2014, Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, put on the dog in protest. As a spoof, he dressed in a black boa, blue hat, and held an E.T. doll and a sign saying, “Virginia is for tax credits,” according to the Old Dominion Watchdog website.

For now, snaring “Loving,” which had been an HBO series, gives Virginia’s film sector a boost. The movie tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a white and black married couple, who were arrested in 1958 because of the state’s ban on interracial marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the couple’s appeal in 1967. The movie stars Joel Edgerton of “Zero Dark Thirty” and Ruth Negga of “World War Z” and will be produced by Nancy Buirski.

Edmunds won’t say what tax credits were offered to get “Loving,” because it’s confidential economic development information. But he says the film should have $20 million in economic impact.

“Loving” and other projects in the pipeline mean that Virginia will be out of film credits until July 2016, he adds, unless the General Assembly takes action. S