Lights, Camera, Hawaii

Can the Isle's film industry compete with low cost locations?

September, 2001

Question: What do the films Pearl Harbor, Planet of the Apes, Windtalkers, Jurassic Park III and Final Fantasy have in common?

Answer: A smooth, successful new form of cooperation between government, industry and labor known as the Hawaii Television and Film Development Board. The organization is now working to streamline the way film production is done in the state and attract and accelerate big money for new productions from outside.

On the heels of a record-setting revenue year in 2000 ($136 million and counting) and the forecast of a promising but probably less lucrative 2001 because of Hollywood strike threats, Hawaii’s state and county film office managers and commissioners are elated to have a high-powered film industry-oriented team working with them to convince government that film production is the perfect industry for Hawaii: it’s clean, it’s a significant growth industry with considerable high-tech development promise, it creates jobs, and it provides a tremendous return on investment.

With a new Hawaii-filmed production released almost each month between May and November, in which the state was a scenic “stand-in” for places as far-off as Saipan, Costa Rica, Thailand and Venezuela, and lots of new projects for film and television in the critical talking stages, there’s positive initiative now in place to nudge the legislature to pass progressive incentives to bolster the industry.

One initiative seeks to streamline the permit process between the state and county offices, when filming takes place on state-owned and conservation-zoned lands. A second, more complicated proposal is to scrutinize and rework the tax incentive program with an eye toward broadening the criteria so that more producers and filmmakers can qualify for television and feature film work. The third is designed to explore the idea of converting the current Hawaii Film Office, now a unit of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, into an independent agency within DBEDT, which, according to Dawson, “would allow us to act more like the private sector, which, in a business that’s always going a thousand miles an hour, and where decisions must be made in minutes, is important to us.”According to Donne Dawson, manager of the Hawaii Film Office, and Walea L. Constantinau, film commissioner of the Honolulu Film Office, the board, which was signed into law in June 2000, is currently pursuing three major initiatives. Each is designed to speed up the administrative processes related to film production, and, as Constantinau puts it, “level the playing field to get more production companies to film here.”

Thus far, results are encouraging. Says Constantinau: “Our research has shown that in almost every cost category, except for travel, we are very competitive with Los Angeles. The thing that gets us in the end is producers have to spend the money to get over here. So anything we can do to help them with their bottom line helps us compete with low-cost countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada.” When the Hawaii Film Office conducted a recent focus group with film industry leaders, they came away with two messages, say Constantinau and Dawson: “The first was, remember, this is a bottom line business. The second was, we’d love to work in Hawaii.”

While one of the Film Board’s missions is to nurture the local film community and support worthwhile Hawaii projects, results are already starting to show from strong marketing efforts to promote the state’s filming and location resources to outside producers. “We can’t mention any names, but there are some reality-based shows we’ve been working with,” Dawson says. “And, with any luck, we’ll probably have at least two feature films shooting before the end of the year.” And the Film Office is already starting to see results from their June participation in the Association of Independent Commercial Producers annual meeting in New York City, with Palomar Pictures having shot a Toyota commercial in Hawaii in August, and other commercials under consideration.

Still, the most optimistic news for Hawaii’s five film commissions is the strong new voice in local government, which they believe will keep local film production revenues on a fast-growth track in years to come. By pooling resources, dollars and energy, they now think they’re making an impact and starting to see more support at the government level. In Constantinau’s words, “we’re hoping in the next session when we go to them with our hands wide open that they’re going to have a good reaction. With that record $136 million year, we think they’re really paying attention now.”

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