If you’re making a TV series about a two-fisted Clark County sheriff battling crime, corruption and the mob in 1960s Las Vegas, it seems logical to film in the place where it all really happened.
But what’s the value of logic against a 25 percent tax credit that Nevada doesn’t match?
That’s why "Vegas,” CBS TV’s adaptation of the life and times of former Sheriff Ralph Lamb to debut in the fall, is being filmed complete with bright casino marquees and statuesque showgirls in the other Las Vegas – the one in New Mexico. That state offers a tax break on all direct production and post-production expenditures, including the cost of the crew.
"They brought it to us first. They wanted us to do it, but we can’t compete with New Mexico," said Chris Ramirez, who runs Silver State Productions in Las Vegas. "It happens all the time."
Ramirez’s company facilitates anything film producers might need – he hires crew, finds locations, does the permitting. But he can’t do his job if Hollywood doesn’t want to come here.
"We’re continuously fighting against states like New Mexico and Louisiana, and now North Carolina, that have incentives," Ramirez said.
Forty states offer some incentives to movie productions. Nevada offers only the absence of a state income tax and abatement of room tax after 30 days – not enough to be competitive, say those in the industry.
For Ramirez, it’s a constant fight to keep productions here. Last year he and other industry people talked the producers of "The Motel Life," a movie set in Reno starring Dakota Fanning, out of taking the film elsewhere. The producers originally planned to shoot for a few days in Reno before heading to a state with tax incentives, but were swayed by non-financial concerns.
"We chose to shoot in Reno for authenticity," said Liam Satre-Meloy of the film’s production company, Polsky Films.
Money, apparently, isn’t everything.
In 2011, 479 productions were filmed in Nevada, up from 2010’s 367. Total production revenue for 2011 was $102.5 million, up from $81.1 million in 2010. The Nevada Film Office’s records show 2005 as the most lucrative year recently, with 789 productions filmed in the state, bringing in $120.2 million.
Direct comparisons are complicated because New Mexico tracks direct spending, rather than revenue. But in 2010 and 2011 combined that state saw only 60 productions, but all were significantly longer – shooting for weeks instead of days. Direct spending there in 2011 was $276.7 million, up from $206.2 million in 2010.
Interest in bringing more film production to Nevada isn’t new. Ramirez and others have been arguing for competitive incentives for years, and Gov. Brian Sandoval in February released an economic development plan that includes the study of a number of economic development incentives, including film tax incentives. That process is ongoing, said Dave Berns, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
‘STEADY DECLINE’ IN BUSINESS
Players in Nevada’s small film industry say the state isn’t just losing out on productions such as CBS’s "Vegas," it’s also seeing a gradual erosion of the industry here.
"Over the last 10 years since film incentives started, we’ve seen a steady decline of business in Nevada. The problem is, other states that have them put us at an unfair disadvantage,” said JR Reid, owner of JR Lighting and a leader in the push for film tax incentives.
As of now, the film industry in Las Vegas is only big enough to fill a 50-person crew on a major production and still leave enough people in the city to stage the resident shows on the Strip, as well as the city’s special events like conventions and concerts.
"I know that doesn’t give you a great picture, but we’re about that big," Ramirez said. "We’re not any bigger than that. If another big movie came to town or anything happened at the same time, it’s really tough to schedule two big projects at the same time in this town."
Silver State Productions employs five full-time people, but Ramirez adds freelancers as needed. In August, for example, he and Reid will have crews in Reno for production of "The Days of Mary," starring Matt Dillon and Juliette Lewis. If it goes well, the two are talking about opening an office up north.
The industry needs to grow, Ramirez said, but crews will go where there’s work.
"If we could just compete, not even all the way like North Carolina, I think the choice to come here would be clear," Ramirez said. "We would blow everything else out of the water in this country."
Reno could become a production hub, he added, because of the variety of landscapes surrounding the small city.
"If we had a tax incentive, Reno could really concentrate on being a film community more so than a gaming community, I think," Ramirez said.
Contact reporter Laura Carroll at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4588.