Walla Walla gets primer on film industry needs

Attracting cinematic productions requires a community effort, experts say.

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WALLA WALLA — Local officials have more than stars in their eyes when it comes to Walla Walla’s future on the big screen. They’re also seeing the potential for dollar signs.

Nine months after the launch of the Walla Walla Film Office, a panel of film and television experts said Wednesday the economic impact of their industry has far-reaching benefits — from living-wage jobs to increased retail sales tax revenue.

Though often associated with major metropolitan areas, film and television are reaching small towns and bringing with it new revenue and new opportunities, said Amy Lillard, executive director of Washington FilmWorks, during the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Quarterly Business Luncheon.

“When you think about feature films, you think about celebrities, stars. I think jobs and dollars,” Lillard told a crowd of more than 80 people gathered for the presentation at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center.

The state film office, she said, has had a more than $213 million impact on the economy since its launch six years ago. It has created more than 5,000 jobs, and included films in 23 communities across Washington.

Walla Walla, she said, has all the components producers may be looking for in a location: one-of-a-kind scenes, a responsive film office, entrepreneurial leadership and sunshine.

“This, I think, sets the stage for a larger conversation,” she said.

The next logical question, some said: What can Walla Walla do?

Some at the round tables attended the event because they have properties they believe will be ideal for shooting. Others, such as representatives from Walla Walla Community College, wondered what they might be able to do to provide support in the form of training and education. Attendees seemed unanimously supportive.

Tourism Walla Walla Executive Director Ron Peck said if there’s one risk in developing film and television shoots here, it’s the acceptance that the community and its advocates can’t always control the message or portrayal of the community. That’s particularly true of unscripted or reality-based shows, he said. But that’s not always a bad thing either, he acknowledged. He said the qualities that make Walla Walla such a desirable destination for tourists are also what could be selling points for filmmakers.

“At the end of the day, I think promoting film media is a good thing because it brings people to our city and they’re here for business. They’re spending money in hotels, at food and beverage outlets, getting their dry cleaning done,” he said. “It’s another element of diversifying Walla Walla’s economy.”

As often one of the first points of contact for filmmakers, Lillard said her office entertains an array of inquiries when it comes to finding the ideal location: “What color are the raindrops in March?” “Do you have any trained goats?”

Apart from the location alone, those looking for a site need a place that makes sense for the logistics of the business, meaning a workforce, enough places to stay and sites that can handle the demands of shooting.

“A lot of the film business is based on business decisions versus location,” Lillard said.

The conversation about film and television — an industry that supports 2.1 million jobs and $143 billion in wages, officials cited Wednesday — comes after the October launch of the Walla Walla Film Office.

Operated under the Chamber, the office capitalizes on the film industry background of Chamber Chief Executive Officer David Woolson. Already Walla Walla has been featured in one show, the talent docu-series “Showville,” which aired in June on AMC. Woolson since has worked to recruit other television shows and had even bid — unsuccessfully — on a movie that would have brought $5 million to the community.

Success can be achieved, panelists Rich Cowan and David Cress affirmed.

Cowan, the founder of Spokane-based production company North By Northwest Productions, has been making films in Eastern Washington for more than 20 years. The growing demands for round-the-clock viewing has only bolstered companies like his.

“They all need product. They need stuff to run 24/7,” Cowan said. “They can’t all spend a ton of money sometimes. Our model is to fit that niche of product that’s $2 million to $8 million.”

Spokane, he said, can provide all of the landscape of a major metropolitan area without all of the logistical challenges, such as parking. That’s how he came to make a movie with Chuck Norris based in the Sinai Desert but shot outside of Spokane in Sprague, Wash.

And the economic effects go beyond the 100 people employed during the shoot. When directing one film, Cowan said the Brazilian actress playing Ray Liotta’s wife at the time was on her first trip to the U.S. during the shoot. She stayed four weeks and estimated she spent about $120,000 in the community.

The first question a producer must ask when seeking out a potential location is: “Where is right for the idea?” explained “Portlandia” producer David Cress.

“Is there enough capacity to house the crew? How far away from a production center is it? How far away from an airport? How many flights a day are there?” Cress explained. “No one thing is insurmountable, but you go through a sort of checklist.”

Lillard emphasized that landing films is a highly competitive process, bolstered by incentives. In the case of Washington, the incentive funds come from a business and occupation tax matching program.

Wednesday’s presentation came one year after the Chamber announced its Chamber Works Project, an economic development focus plan based on four main planks: digital infrastructure; “Plow to Plate” culinary scene growth; a Hispanic business round-table concept; and development of the creative economy.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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