Filmed on location in Kentucky: Will Greenfield, House Bill 340 and the bottom line on the film and television production incentive package

On May 9, Kentucky took another step toward becoming its own little Hollywood.

With the passage of House Bill 340, signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear, financial incentives were put into place with the intent of bringing more film and television production to the state. These incentives, designed to make Kentucky a more viable option against competing states, are now some of the strongest available in the nation. But questions remain about what the law will actually do for Kentucky and how it goes about enticing film and television production to move to the Commonwealth.

With fierce competition for film industry dollars, how will this new law translate into revenue for Kentucky’s dwindling coffers? Will it fill them or break them? The answer is complex, but part of it lies in one unassuming Kentucky native, who has gone from unfortunate levels of poverty to becoming a successful player in the film industry. If there is anyone who can help make the Commonwealth’s dream of Hollywood dollars come true, it’s Kentucky native Will Greenfield. He has just the right amount of knowledge, experience and determination to make this happen, considering he’s already achieved it for himself.


 

Sitting in a coffee house in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Greenfield was far from home. With his throwback glasses and urban wear outfit, few people would ever expect his phone to contain the numbers for Spike Lee, Andrew Garfield, Forrest Whittaker and Samuel Jackson. Normally, that would be an impressive accomplishment for anyone, but considering Greenfield’s roots, it’s damn near a miracle.

Raised in Bullitt County, Greenfield always loved movies. For him, they were an escape. They represented a fantastical window to different and more exciting worlds. Greenfield’s childhood was not ideal. Although both his parents loved him, they had married young and poor, and their inexperience brought on certain hardships. Even though these trials would mean he would sometimes have to live in a car or go without electricity or running water, his parents tried their best to spoil him when they could.

Though his life had difficulties, Greenfield grew up happy and he never felt unloved. His parents showered him with gifts and toys that would make even wealthier children jealous. But it wasn’t the material things that became the legacy of his childhood, it was the lessons he learned from his parents.

Both of Greenfield’s parents raised him with traits that have helped him through his career. His mother, Jeanie, always had a love for movies and carried with her a determination and an ability to command that Greenfield took as his own.  And his father, Curtis, a very outgoing and social man, passed his jovial attitude on to his son. Fortunately for Greenfield, both parents had a strong work ethic, each taking on three jobs to provide for their son, which in turn made him into a man who could never be called lazy.

Now in his late 30s, Greenfield works as a line producer for film and television. He has worked with such iconic directors as Quentin Tarantino, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Spike Lee and is currently co-producing the much anticipated film, “Loving,” directed by the acclaimed director of “Mud,” Jeff Nichols.

As a line producer, Greenfield has one of the most important and stressful jobs on a feature film: He holds the checkbook. As the guardian of the investors’ money and the man responsible for getting the most bang for their buck, Greenfield is the person who manages the crew, negotiates the salaries of the cast, takes care of vending, catering and the hiring, and sometimes firing, of the support staff. And although his many duties often have multiple complications, one of the most difficult functions of his job involves keeping directors on budget.

Greenfield will do anything he can to make sure that the directors have whatever is necessary to complete their vision of a film, but occasionally he has to inform them, even the most famous ones, that for financial reasons, they need to scale back on certain shots. They know it is Greenfield’s job to protect the film’s investment and that everyone follows the union rules.

Essentially, Greenfield is the platform on which a film stands and is a reminder that not every job in the film industry is glamorous. In filmmaking, there are people in the background who make things happen, many of whom are just as important as the actors and directors, but most are people we have never heard of. This is where Greenfield reigns.

Greenfield got his start by attending college at Eastern Kentucky University and, thanks to federal and state grants, graduated with a degree in broadcasting with a minor in theater arts. After college, he worked in local television, but his big break came while running camera for WLKY. One afternoon, a co-worker gave him a tip about a potential job on an upcoming feature film shooting in Kentucky. It would be low-paying menial work, but to Greenfield, that didn’t matter. It was his chance to step into the world he loved.

Without hesitation, Greenfield followed up on the tip. He located the office, found the name of the assistant coordinator, drove to Lexington, and, according to him, “gave her my best pitch and handed her my resume. A month went by and they called me to work as a set (production assistant) for one day. At that time it was the best day of my life.”

But it wasn’t glamorous work. Production assistants are the serfs of the film industry. They get coffee, make copies, round up extras and are often the targets of stars’ temper tantrums. But because his parents had instilled in him a strong work ethic and an unwavering determination, he was able to persevere through these experiences.

After the film finished shooting, Greenfield went back to work in local television. But whenever the opportunity arose, he continued to work on locally produced films, including “Keep Your Distance,” by local director Stu Pollard, and “Elizabethtown,” directed by Cameron Crowe. It didn’t take many of these experiences before Greenfield realized that this is what he wanted to do.

“During this time, before the Internet is what it is now, I mailed hard copy resumes to New York City for over two and a half years straight,” Greenfield says. So when he was finally offered a position, with $800 in his pocket, no place to live and a job only slated to last six weeks, he moved to New York City.

Once there, Greenfield found a small apartment in Harlem that he would end up sharing with five people, one rat and a million cockroaches. He had been through worse, so he was determined to make the living conditions work. Not that he had much time to spend in the apartment anyway. His work schedule kept him busy, and when the initial job was over, Greenfield had made enough contacts to move from one production to the next.

Over time, many of the contacts he had worked with in New York began to migrate to Louisiana, because the tax incentives there were too lucrative to pass up. Greenfield followed suit. Again, this time with a little more money in hand and now with his future wife, camera operator Tonja Thomas by his side, Greenfield moved his belongings and followed the industry south to New Orleans. Twelve weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit.

Greenfield had barely set up shop in New Orleans before the hurricane made landfall. Heeding early warnings, he and Thomas were able to flee before it landed, but when the levees broke, the flood waters took all of his possessions, and his livelihood. Greenfield and Thomas found themselves homeless but they remained positive and they were determined to return to the career they loved. It was after retreating to Thomas’ family home in Texas that he began planning their next course of action.

Back in that Baton Rouge coffee shop, a long way away from his childhood home and the hurricane that changed his life, Greenfield was preparing for the day before heading off to the set of “Hap & Leonard,” an upcoming Sundance Channel television series. It was here, while flipping through the film trade magazine “Variety” that he came across an advertisement taken out by the Kentucky Film Office. It was a full page ad announcing the passage of the Film and Television Production incentive package in Kentucky.

Although Greenfield’s Kentucky contacts had been keeping him up to date on the law’s movement, the ad came as a surprise to him. He was aware that it could be coming, but had not expected the law to be signed so quickly. Greenfield knew he had to capitalize on this development fast. Because what Greenfield understood, better than most, was what the updated law could mean, not just to his industry, but to his home state as well. He knew the changes made to Kentucky’s incentive plan were designed to be some of the most competitive in the nation, and if it became popular, the Commonwealth could be in for a tidal wave of new productions.

Greenfield took the advert as a call to action and immediately began pitching the bill to producers and executives at Sony, Weinstein and Lionsgate. He then called his contacts at the Kentucky Film Office and personally set up meetings with different local businesses and union representatives whom he felt could benefit from the new law. Greenfield was aware from firsthand experience what a plan like this could do for a local economy, having experienced it in Louisiana some years before.

After Hurricane Katrina, the film and television industry moved from New Orleans to Shreveport, as did Greenfield. The Louisiana tax incentives were too lucrative for productions to leave the state, so Shreveport became the new southern hub for filmmaking. Because the city already had facilities in place for film production, the area saw rapid growth after the hurricane. It was here that Greenfield’s success really blossomed.

Working diligently on every project he could get, Greenfield moved from production assistant, to production coordinator, to unit production manager. Along the way, he worked on over 25 movies and helped make great films like Frank Darabont’s “The Mist” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” His success allowed him to buy a house in Louisiana, get married and, as production started to move back into New Orleans, helped him and his wife return to the city and buy a new home. Greenfield’s experiences and successes were a direct result of the tax incentive program in Louisiana, and he knew that if it could work there, it could work in Kentucky.

Long before Greenfield saw the ad in “Variety,” House Bill 340 was the brainchild of Rep. Rick Rand, D-47, and had been championed by Gov. Beshear and his wife, Jane Beshear. The law had been passed in an amazing feat of bipartisan support and made it through both chambers without a single amendment attached. Even House Speaker Greg Stumbo praised the bill, saying, “With all that Kentucky can provide the film and television industry, from a rich cultural history to a wide variety of settings, I firmly believe this new law is the final step we need to compete with other states in this field. The House was proud to partner with Governor and First Lady Beshear in getting this economic measure approved.” And according to Gov. Beshear, “House Bill 340 gives Kentucky a strong advantage when competing with other states for outside film projects. Increased film production in Kentucky means a boost to local economies and an opportunity to highlight the Bluegrass State on both big and small screens across the world.”

The Kentucky legislation comes as a direct result of the mounting Cold War between nearly every state in the country and the film and television industry. Because of fierce competition, when one state increases its incentive deals, other states follow suit. Almost all states offer some kind of incentive programs, with some being more successful than others. And since the film industry is a profit-making enterprise, if the companies find a better deal elsewhere, they will pack up shop and move production there.

There are several key points in the potential success of Kentucky’s new law that make it stand out from other states. In most states, including Louisiana, the incentives come in the form of tax credits. These credits are transferable and are sold by the film and television productions to Louisiana companies at 85 cents on the dollar, but in Kentucky, the incentives are refundable tax credits. Instead of being issued a credit, which they can then sell to local companies, the film production company would get cash refunds. This alone would make Kentucky a very enticing place to do business.

But the law also lowers the threshold for qualifying films and raises the percentage amount for the tax credit. Before the new law, a feature-length film, or television series, would have to spend $500,000 to receive a 20 percent credit. Now an out-of-state company will only have to spend $250,000 to receive a 30 to 35 percent tax credit, depending on where the production shoots. And an in-state company only has to spend $125,000 to receive the same percentage tax credit. But there is a catch. The maximum payout that any one production can receive is $2.5 million. Although this means that large film projects could pass the state by, it makes it a very enticing place for smaller films.

Unlike most states, Kentucky has left the actual number of film and television productions completely uncapped. Essentially, the state is willing to issue rebates to as many productions that are willing to come here and qualify for approved expenditures. So what are the approved expenditures?

They are a 30 percent cash rebate on rental cars, hotels, flights, office space, rent and any equipment rented in the state, as well as a 35 percent cash rebate on using Kentucky resident labor. This also includes the production of a synopsis and script, set construction and operations, wardrobe, accessories and related services, photography, sound synchronization, lighting, editing and the all-important catering. Larger incentives exist for filming in what is called an “enhanced incentive county.” If they choose to film in one of these areas, the film production will receive a 35 percent tax credit on what would normally be only 30 percent. Enhanced incentive counties are those that have either a countywide unemployment rate that exceeds the statewide unemployment rate in the most recent five consecutive calendar years or an average countywide unemployment rate exceeding the statewide unemployment rate by 200 percent in the most recent calendar year.

But there are potential downsides to Kentucky’s revamped incentive package and some detractors feel the law could spell trouble for the Commonwealth. According to Kentucky’s Legislative Research Commission (LRC), “Unlike the majority of other states that place an annual cap on the amount of credits awarded, Kentucky does not have a cap in place, nor does HB 340 establish a cap. To the extent Kentucky is successful in attracting new film production to the state, an uncapped program could have a significant and serious detrimental fiscal impact.” Other states are now realizing the potential issues with a cap-less incentive program, including Louisiana. There, the incentive program radically changed how and where films were made. Louisiana’s original success came from offering tax credits to an unlimited number of productions, like Kentucky’s new law now does, and, in turn, it appeared that they were able to boost the state’s exposure and helped create a thriving local industry filled with regional workers and dramatic small business growth. But despite all of the appearances of the prosperity there, the Louisiana House recently passed a bill to cap film tax credits at $180 million per year.

Multiple studies have shown that for every $5 the state spends on film production tax incentives, they only receive $1 in new revenue. The same studies show that although employment did increase, it was only a temporary boost to the numbers. The only conflicting report was by The Louisiana Film Entertainment Association (LFEA), which took into account areas of growth that they felt were missing from the previous studies and showed a positive net gain. In response to the newly placed cap, the LFEA threatened a lawsuit, saying that the new law could damage the local industry, but has yet to file one because Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal hasn’t enforced the unfavorable aspects of the new law and has so far interpreted it in industry-friendly terms.

Kentucky’s LRC report also found that given the state’s “lack of an advanced film production facility, soundstage, or the necessary complement of technical workers in the film industry, it is not likely the state would land a big budget film. Rather, the most likely scenario is Kentucky might be successful in landing one or several mid-major films, or a number of independent films, due in part to the higher incentives offered.” Greenfield agrees, but in his experience, he has seen that it only takes one major film to come to the state and soon after, others will follow. With that, the infrastructure will grow, more jobs will be created and the small number of local crew rosters will grow.

Greenfield left Baton Rouge for a short homecoming soon after calling the film executives and making plans to meet with business leaders in Kentucky. This was no vacation. Every day of his trip was booked with people and companies that he felt could benefit from the new incentive law. He wanted to make certain that some of the key elements necessary for film production were in place and prepared for whatever may come.

First on his agenda was housing. When he arrived in Louisville, Greenfield spoke with representatives from The Seelbach Hilton, 21c Museum Hotel and the Brown Hotel. He advised them on how to manage a film crew staying for weeks or months at a time and the types of accommodations necessary for high profile actors and directors. They also discussed parking, food and beverages and how to handle the room costs during peak times of year, specifically Derby. Always the guardian of the checkbook, Greenfield is constantly aware of the need to keep costs on budget and paying Derby prices for an entire film crew could eat up the housing budget quickly.

A necessity for every film crew is transportation, so when Greenfield finished with the hotels, he met with the Local 89 Teamsters. They are the wheels that provide the transportation for film production. Without them, nothing happens. They haul the trailers, equipment, materials. If it needs to be moved, that’s the Teamsters’ job. And since every regional Teamster Hall has different rules and regulations, Greenfield knows how important it is to acclimate himself on Local 89’s television and film contract rules and regulations. In the film and television industry, Teamster support is vital, and he knew that being knowledgeable about the contract and maintaining a good working relationship would benefit both sides.

Satisfied with his meetings with the Teamsters, Greenfield then held talks with representatives from Red Star Pictures, a local grip and lighting equipment rental company. Greenfield knew that if the state was to see rapid growth, Red Star and other equipment rental facilities would be a key component in its success. So he toured the facilities, discussed inventory and evaluated their preparedness. Greenfield wanted to determine if they were capable of handling several productions at a time and warned them about outside companies who might try to swoop in if they couldn’t keep up with demand. He also gave them some advice on how to be competitive and discussed their plans to expand as the Kentucky film community grows. He left assured that they were up for the job. Walking away from his meetings, Greenfield feels confident in Kentucky’s film production future. He knows there is still plenty of work to be done and quite a few potential stumbling blocks along the way, but he also knows that whatever happens, the state is taking the right steps to ensure that any such falls are minor.

As for advice to aspiring film industry workers, Greenfield reminds them “to never give up and to do whatever you have to, to get your foot through that first door. I’ve slept in my car, on couches and lived in a 300-square-foot apartment in Harlem with five adults to get through this door called the entertainment industry. If you are not willing to sacrifice, you won’t be able to succeed.” Greenfield’s advice also applies to the state. He is confident that if Kentucky is determined to make the new law work, then it will happen. Success doesn’t come by chance. It requires planning, preparation and the ability to react quickly to any given situation. These three things are usually not associated with government planning, but given the way Kentucky is handling its incentive program, it may be time to readjust that thinking. Provided that the incentives work, that the lack of a cap doesn’t crush the state, that a new governor doesn’t nix the plan and that the local economy sees a rise in employment and film infrastructure, Kentucky’s Hollywood dream can come true.

If not, at least Greenfield got to come home for the weekend.

About the Author

Filmed on location in Kentucky: Will Greenfield, House Bill 340 and the bottom line on the film and television production incentive package

Chasson Higdon is a writer, artist and filmmaker. At an early age, when other boys were learning about sports or cars, Chasson had his head buried in art history books or creating paintings and drawings. This trend has continued on into adulthood, where he has earned his BA in Fine Arts from Indiana University, received multiple awards for his creative endeavors and is still currently clueless about sports or cars.

 

@chasson_2001

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