Wrangell's downtown Front Street stands empty at noon. Remove the cars and you have a Hollywood film set complete with fake store fronts. The Stikine Drugstore even comes with life-size pirates installed.
A Wrangell home sports lemon yellow siding, a half-finished ark in the backyard and a cosmos-themed truck out front.
Story last updated at 2/23/2011 - 3:50 pm
Winter, 1 p.m., Wrangell Island - A fishing boat glides along Zimovia Strait. Sun glints off the glassy waters to strike Dr. McCandliss's Victorian house. Its ornate eaves cast sharp shadows along the lemon yellow siding. Propped in the backyard, high and dry, sits a half-finished ark.
That's not a movie script, but a real scene from a recent Thursday. Quintessential Alaska, picturesque and quirky, ideally film-worthy. Not for nothing do so many cinematic dream-spinners set their stories in the state. But ironically they all-too-often go elsewhere to film their Alaskan plots.
For instance, "The Proposal," Director Anne Fletcher's latest comedy, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, has a screenplay based in Sitka but only a week of filming and $400,000 of the expenses for the film came to Sitka. Most of the supposedly Alaskan locales were actually shot in Massachusetts. Similarly, "Northern Exposure," the popular 80s television series about small town Alaskan life, was shot in Washington.
But each time a film crew opts for a faux-Alaska somewhere out-of-state, the real Alaska has real costs in the form of foregone jobs, retail sales and service receipts. So how to ensure that what (fictively) happens in Alaska (fiscally) stays in Alaska?
The usual incentives - tax breaks and infrastructural support - apply better to industries like processing plants or tourism. It takes some tweaking to adapt these measures for a here-today-gone-tomorrow operation like a movie shoot. It's worth it, though, considering the potential profits.
So Gov. Sean Parnell, in his first State of the State address last month, proposed an extension of the three-year-old Alaska Film Production Incentive Program, which awards transferable tax credits to producers who choose to film here. These credits can then be sold to Alaskan companies to offset certain filming expenses.
"It's like a coupon on a tax return," Alaska Film Office General Manager David Worrell explained. "For example, a $1 million film production could get $300,000 back. The film producer might then sell it at a discount - say $250,000 - to an Alaskan business to use towards its tax liability."
The office offers a minimum of 30 percent (and a maximum of 44 percent) in transferable credit for film productions with at least $100,000 worth in qualified expenditures. Productions can get an additional 10 percent for hiring in state and two percent for filming during winter months or in rural areas.
Last year, Alaskan companies bought $245,546.28 in tax credits from film production companies. Numbers for 2010 are not available, but 28 film productions have already been pre-qualified to participate for 2011.
The idea is not original to Parnell or Alaska. In fact, Alaska is one of the last states nationwide to offer the scheme. And even as the film-shoot incentive program is expanding here, other states are looking to cut their initiatives to reduce the tax burden on residents.
Not to worry, though, according to Rep. Johanna Bales, Deputy Director of the Alaska Division of Taxes.
"Treasuries in other states are down," she said. "Alaska didn't get hit as badly. The ability to offer a tax incentive is a sign of a state's financial health."
And other states leaving the game could actually work to Alaska's advantage, Worrell adds. The economic downturn has made film companies more dependent on incentives.
"The industry overall is changing," Worrell said. "There are fewer big studio feature films and more small independent filmmakers willing to travel outside Hollywood for production. Even studios are looking to travel for portions of their productions."
To ensure that Alaska gets the full benefit of the program, Worrell added, the incentives only cover filming expenses actually incurred within the state and are transferable only to Alaskan companies.
Sitka-based director and producer Ellen Frankenstein, who worked as a local casting director for "The Proposal," learned first-hand how a film-shoot can benefit local businesses.
"Film crews are like tourists who spend," she said. "They buy food, trinkets, artwork and even parts at the hardware store. And then they say, 'When I go on vacation, I think I'll come back to Alaska.'"
However, she added, Southeast Alaska faces logistical hurdles to becoming a filmmaking destination. The weather changes frequently. Most towns only have one daily flight in and out. Plus, quiet towns that shut down early didn't fit with the late work schedules of film crews.
Worrell, of the Alaska Film Office, said he was excited about the possibility of the incentive program stimulating a local film industry, for Alaskans to tell Alaskan stories.
"Every time a big production comes in, they bring in crews and equipment that can be used by local film producers," he said. "There are so many great stories in this landscape - the gold rush, fishing."
Screenwriter Melissa Blake, who penned an episode of "Xena: Warrior Princess" and a season of "Ghost Whisperer," heartily agrees. Stopping by Wrangell on a family visit, she offered a presentation on her job to the fourth grade class at the local elementary school.
"You see this blackboard? Where I work, there are blackboards on every wall and we spend the whole day thinking up stories," she said. "Stories are everywhere. Write down everything you see - that way, you can make people feel too."
Whereupon, nine-year-old Morgan Torvend stopped slouching at her desk and pulled out a notebook and started doodling.
"Vampires versus werewolves," she wrote above a drawing of a round face with fangs - the start of a storyboard for some future "Twilight" series episode?
It could be, if Worrell and the incentive program achieve their desired results. Perhaps, ten years out, Torvend can enjoy a movie career without even leaving Wrangell.
Melati Kaye writes from Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org