Zachary Spicer and Paul Shoulberg stood in the middle of a former catering space in Bloomington just last week examining the various projects that were underway all around them. The director of photography was scouting shots. An artistic director was wrapping up the finishing touches on a large wooden confessional that would later be a part of the movie set. And lighting crews were clicking through tests before the shoot got started on Monday. It was the set of their newest production The Good Catholic, and Indiana doesn't want them to make it.
Spicer, the producer of the film and Shoulberg, the writer and director do have their work cut out for them. Both graduated from Indiana University — Spicer for undergrad and Shoulberg from grad school — some time ago. Since then they have been either in New York or L.A. doing what they love — making movies. Spicer was an actor and Shoulberg a writer. Spicer made films when he was growing up in Indiana, but making one on this scale was not something that he had ever done.
"We want to do this right — we should do it ourselves," says Spicer. "So I set about learning how to produce a movie."
They, fortunately, knew a lot of people in the film industry by the time they set out to make The Good Catholic. But the production led them to some interesting questions. Because it was a full-length feature movie, both men knew the price tag that would come with it; between hiring crews to work on lights, set, costumes and design to the expensive cameras and equipment that they would have to rent, it wasn't going to be cheap. The story is set in a small college town and much of the script refers to a local basketball team. It had IU written all over it. The problem was that financially almost anywhere else in the country made more sense than Indiana.
Spicer explains how right now they are taking a huge financial hit just by turning the set lights on Monday morning.
"In every single aspect it would have made more sense for us to film this in say Bloomington-Normal Illinois," says Spicer.
Had they decided to shoot in Illinois, they would have been able to give 30 percent of every single dollar they spent back to their investors the moment production wrapped due the filmmaking production tax incentive. Indiana is one of the few states that does not offer a tax break for feature films shot in the state.
"We are doing it because it means so much to us and because we all come from Indiana," says Spicer. "We really do want to see this change."
The change that Spicer refers to is one that governs the lives of many Indiana filmmakers. In fact 2011 was the last time that there was a tax incentive in Indiana (15 percent). It ended because of a lack of use, likely because it was not competitive enough to be compared to neighbors like Kentucky (a 30-35 precent tax credit) or Illinois (30 percent).
"[With a tax cut] You are automatically seeing a return on your money before you have even sold a single ticket," says Spicer. He explains that when they go to investors asking for a million dollars, for example, they are able to promise that a percent of anything spent while shooting will immediately be handed back over to the investors. A safe bet on return means looser wallets from private investors, tackling the main problem with making films — the almighty dollar.
Their passion for the state and seeing the film industry here find its sea legs is what motivated Spicer to start his production company Pigasus — an almost all IU grad-run film production company with plans to make three feature films (all with increasing budgets) over the next three years in Indiana. Though they were formed in New York, they are based here. Their mission statement is short and sweet: "To bring great film back to Indiana."
"It has been far too long for Hoosiers, Rudy and Breaking Away for great movies to take place here and actually be filmed here," says Spicer.
Three-fourths of their budget is being spent in Indiana and 80 percent of their investors for The Good Catholic reside in the state. That tax credit would pour money back into the Hoosier economy fast and sustainably.
"I knew if a couple of Indiana boys started walking around and asking people in town for favors because we were gong to be making a movie here, I knew people were going to open their arms to us," says Spicer. "I know the people down here."
He explains that their budget could likely be twice what it is if it wasn't for local people going out of their way to help make the movie. For example, Grant Street Inn giving them discounts on lodging for the crew and local restaurants donating lunches. (When we spoke food donated from Quaff On was being set up for the crew.)
"I knew from early on that was going to happen because that's what Indiana people are," says Spicer.
The hospitality of Hoosiers is what has kept several filmmakers working in the state. And they are faced with a troubling dichotomy between a lack institutional backing and the swell of homegrown support that is so innate for many of us.
Zack Parker, the director of Proxy and a Richmond-based filmmaker with four feature notches on his belt, has likewise been able to use the hometown hospitality to his advantage, but it's not always enough.
"I built up an awareness of myself in my community so those are favors I am able to pull," says Parker. "For that reason I don't think I could have made these films at this price anywhere else. But you get to a certain budget range and it becomes almost financially irresponsible to shoot movies in Indiana because there is no tax incentive. So why would I not go to Illinois where I can get 30 percent back on what I spend there?"
Just to give a small taste of the kind of capital Parker brings with each production, while shooting Proxy he spent 30-40 thousand dollars on hotel rooms alone in Indiana. He added that his next film (being made later this year) will be shot in Chicago where he can send the crew home to sleep in their own beds at night.
As far as state incentives or tax breaks, Parker has yet to find any substantial support.
Parker also spent time looking for grants from arts agencies around the state and found little that would provide the kind of backing he would need. To be fair, filmmaking can have a much higher profit margin at his level than other artists who are also searching for that kind of grant money. Regardless of the level of support that does exist in the state, the fact that a feature filmmaker cannot find it easily speaks to a marketing issue in the Indiana film community.
Some have seen the small community as an easy point of access — Catherine Crouch for example.
Crouch, based in Indiana, has been making everything from music videos to features to documentaries (her most recent project has taken 20 years to film) for years. Her budgets have touched everywhere from $1,000 to upwards of $3 million.
"There is more support because there are so few of us," says Crouch.
She usually turns to the Indiana Film Network when she is looking for a crew. The things missing here, she adds, are not native to Indiana.
"I think that you are missing a critical mass and that's true of all cities our size," says Crouch. "You have to have stages, you have to have actors, you have to have equipment rental opportunities ... I know that is difficult everywhere."
For her the tax breaks are not a factor.
"Only to the point of producing a narrative feature film," says Crouch. "I don't think I would ever pick a place because it's cheap — I don't think I'm at that point. You know, to go to Toronto because you're going to get 25 percent cash back. What's more important is what it looks like to me."
Like Parker and Spicer, she is able to use the homecourt advantage while shooting.
"People are not jaded about it," says Crouch. "People are willing to do things like let you shoot around areas, their houses ... They are excited about it, which doesn't happen in big cities."
Crouch did add that she only knows a few people in the state who have been able to move into filmmaking full time.
"There is a lack of it being a career here," says Joshua Hull, a filmmaker who also works at Scaret Lane Brewing for his day job. Hull's first film Beverly Lane received positive reviews as did his slasher comedy Chopping Block. Most recently a holiday comedy called Bethlehem that he worked on won Best Feature Film at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards.
"Everyone has day jobs. I work at a brewery during the day," says Hull. "... The grips and the gaffers and all these people who live in Indiana, all have day jobs ... There have been multiple occasions where, trying to crew up my films and I'm trying to use people from around here and they can't do it because they have day jobs. They can't get out of work. That's the realistic viewpoint of where we are as a community."
His qualms, like Parker, are often to do with a lack of local support.
"We make feature films here too," says Hull. Why can't the general public get excited about films being made by people here?"
Hull, who admitted he was a little jaded by the struggles in the Hoosier film industry at the moment, added that what we expect from the film community is often limited to short productions and not the kind of sustained effort it takes to have an entertainment empire.
"There is a filmmaking here, but it's a filmmaking community that is alright with just settling," says Hull. "I say that because we are not pushy. You are happy to go out and shoot the 48 Hour Film Festival ... that's awesome to be passionate about, but put that passion into a feature film ... There is such this idea of just make short films or little web series."
While programs like the 48 Hour Film Fest are less intended for large scale filmmakers, the buzz that it creates in comparison to features is often waning. It's the hope of people like Jon Vickers, director of IU Cinema, that a grant that was created last year will be the kickstarter we need.
Laying the groundwork
In December of 2015, Titled Fil Indy, a two-year, $300,000 initiative created by Visit Indy, the Indy Chamber, the Central Indiana Community Foundation and the city of Indianapolis may be the first step in bringing a flourishing film industry to Indiana. The project is based in Indianapolis and meant to feed the $300,000 into TV commercials and movies that would all be shot in the city. The estimated impact is in the ballpark $6 million in economic benefits.
The initiative is not alone. Film Indiana, though a small two-person office, has been in place for several years and serves as a resource for directors and producers who wish to shoot in Indiana. Erin Schneider, the director of Film Indiana, spends her time connecting filmmakers to private crews, finding locations to shoot and striving to be a one-stop-shop for new cinematic undertakings. She sees the addition of categories for Hoosier-made films in festivals like Heartland and Indy Film Fest as a barometer for positive change. She also tries to encourage filmmakers from out of state to look at the whole picture before turning down Indiana based on no tax cut.
"We don't have a traditional tax incentive for motion picture," says Schneider. "But what I urge people that call and ask that question to evaluate their budget ... the cost of making a film in Indiana will be far less than making it in a state where that happens often."
To compare the actual weight of the cost-benefit is entirely dependent on each film, budget and scope.
While artists like Spicer and Shoulberg are calling cuts and cues to spark change in Indiana, people like Vickers have their sights locked on the legislative battle.
Vickers, along with a small team of IU current and retired faculty, state Representative Matt Pierce, a Hollywood filmmaker based in Indiana and two graduate students are busy putting together a bill that would reinstate Indiana's tax incentive. The teeth on this one is a higher tax break if a filmmaker uses only Indiana labor, not just shoot here. Vickers feels that this is the defining difference that could pose this bill for success.
Though the bill was ready before the deadline for 2016, the team decided to wait until 2017 (a budget year) before presenting.
"This will allow the group to use all of 2016 to build advocacy around the bill before presenting," says Vickers. "We crafted what we thought would be a reasonable and valuable bill that could get through legislation here in Indiana.
"It's aimed at supporting the production that is already taking place in Indianapolis," says Vickers.
He sees Titled Film Indy as paving the way for a tax bill with roots.
"I think my eyes were opened with this study and with the introduction of this new office. I think it was such a smart step," says Vickers. "And us waiting another year is also a smart step — to let this infrastructure grow before we get our doors knocked on with productions saying that they want to come ... once that is in place having a tax bill to be able to support the industry that's here and the labor that's here and attract new and build upon that base is critical; otherwise those productions aren't going to come here.
"It can open up a lot of opportunities not only with IU but will Ball State and other programs that have media production around the state," says Vickers. "And to be able to offer more jobs in the state so not everyone feels the need to flock to the coasts is great for all of us."
The economic impact is really felt when productions like The Fault in Our Stars ($14 million to make) that are set in Indiana shoot in Pennsylvania due to a tax credit.
"That's a multi-million dollar film," says Spicer. "... I don't understand what the reasoning is from a state's position to be able to say, 'well, it's just not worth it to us.' I don't understand what it is they are trying to protect by not allowing the entertainment industry to create that type of revenue and employment here."
The frustration is easily felt by those who love to shoot here. After all, you can be lining up a shot downtown one morning then building a set for a country shot later the same day.
Scott Schirmer, a horror filmmaker in Bloomington known for his movie Found, sees Indiana as his best option when it comes to locations and local help.
"Indiana is also kind of like a goldmine for locations," says Schirmer. "There are so many cool locations in Indiana. You can really manage to create something that kids in Los Angeles can't do. They are trapped in an urban environment."
The people and setting of Indiana are all primed and ready to bear the evolution of an entertainment industry even if the infrastructure is only just now taking seed.
Spicer puts it well: "Indiana is a filmmaker's dream."