On Location: State film tax credits are saving grace for 'Amish' TV movie
Veteran producer and talent manager Larry Thompson was captivated by the true story of the Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pa., that somehow managed to forgive a gunman who killed five girls in a 2006 schoolhouse shooting.
Thompson believed the story would make for an inspiring TV movie about the power of faith and forgiveness, but he knew the dark subject matter would be a tough sell in Hollywood.
In fact, the Lifetime Movie Network initially passed on the story, though it eventually agreed to broadcast the film. Entitled “Amish Grace,” the TV movie premiered last year on Palm Sunday and was the cable channel’s most-watched original movie in key demographics. It is scheduled to air again April 17.
Getting a faith-based movie produced was hard enough, but getting it made in California required more than divine intervention.
Speaking at a hearing in Pasadena City Hall last week about the viability of the state’s film tax program, Thompson said the $2.3-million movie, which his production company financed, wouldn’t have happened at all but for California’s incentives.
“I figured God wanted us to pass this California tax credit just so we could get it done,” Thompson, executive producer of “Amish Grace,” told a crowd at the hearing.
The meeting was hosted by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge), who chairs a state committee that is evaluating California’s film tax incentive program, which offers a 20% to 25% tax credit toward qualified spending on film and TV productions.
Thompson was joined by several other film industry supporters, including representatives from the Screen Actors Guild and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, who testified to the effectiveness of the state’s film tax subsidy.
“The tax credit program is our best tool for keeping California competitive," Amy Lemisch, director of the California Film Commission, said at the hearing.
California still faces plenty of competition from other states like Louisiana and New Mexico. (The latter is where the TV shows “In Plain Sight” and “Breaking Bad” are based.) But Lemisch and others argued that the credit is working by keeping production in-state.
Since it took effect in July 2009, California’s film tax credit has allocated $300 million in tax credits to 113 film and TV projects, generating 41,000 jobs and $2.2 billion in spending, including $728 million paid in wages to below-the-line film crews, according to the California Film Commission.
California’s credit is modest compared with what most states offer, but the program aims to lure back low-budget features as well as made-for-TV movies like “Amish Grace” that are increasingly shot elsewhere.
Thompson knows that firsthand. His previous two films were shot in Vancouver and Victoria, Canada, and the last time he shot a movie in California was for the 2000 CBS film “Murder in the Mirror,” starring Jane Seymour.
Initially, he figured he would have to shoot the movie in Michigan or Vancouver, but he concluded that he could do the job for the same money in California when factoring in a tax credit totaling $314,000. Some actors and cast members also were willing to lower their fees so they could stay close to home.
With a cast of about 100 people, “Amish Grace” was shot over just 16 days in December 2009, mainly in the Hidden Valley area of Thousand Oaks, where the crew built a schoolhouse, and a ranch in Moorpark that stood in for the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.
“There’s a value to making a movie in California so you can sleep in your own bed," Thompson said. “I’d like Hollywood to welcome Hollywood home again.”
-- Richard Verrier
Photo: Emilee Wallace, center, plays schoolteacher Ruth Otto in the Lifetime TV movie "Amish Grace" in a scene shot in Thousand Oaks. Credit: Jack Zeman/Larry Thompson Organization.
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