Friday, December 13, 2013

CinemaKC and the Potential Growth of the Kansas City Filmmaking Community

    As the 30th Anniversary of The Sundance Film Festival approaches and retrospectives abound of all the successful films to have come out of the festival, I can't help but think about how it started as a small festival in the mountains as a reaction to the mainstream Hollywood production studios and as an effort to showcase little-known indie filmmakers. The films were fantastic and engaging, and audiences and the film industry both saw how lucrative of a business it is to encourage smaller filmmakers in order to find a wider range of stories and innovative filmmaking. It was a small venture that has grown into one of the biggest film festivals in the world, and it serves as one of the main venues for films to receive distribution and mainstream box office success.

I volunteered at Sundance last year during my transition from Los Angeles - working in film and theatre - to my hometown, Kansas City. I saw the bustle of the crowds at the festival, the networking, and the business deals. It was an intense atmosphere. It was also exciting to see the films receive such a great response and know that the films I saw and heard about in passing were being praised and picked up from major studios within hours of their initial screenings. I would love to see that happen in Kansas City.

I have been lucky to meet and work with passionate and dedicated local filmmakers and at the Kansas City Film Festival. I've been surprised at how large the KC filmmaking scene really is, especially at how much it has grown in the almost ten years since I moved away to study theatre and film at The University of Southern California. Filmmakers based here have won Emmys for their work, and have screened their films at Sundance and other festivals. Gary Huggins is a KC-based filmmaker who has screened multiples shorts at Sundance, SXSW and other festivals. Kevin Wilmott is a KU film professor and screened his film, "C.S.A: The Confederate State of America" at the 2004 Sundance Film festival. Last year's festival saw two documentaries about subjects in Kansas. "After Tiller" is a documentary about the murder of Wichita-abortion doctor Dr. George Tiller and the nation's view on such a controversial topic. "God Loves Uganda" was about the KC-based International House of Prayer's evangelical mission trips to Uganda. These are just a few examples of filmmakers working here and films based out of our local community that have gone on to receive national attention.

Kansas City's filmmaking industry is booming. It is the perfect time for filmmakers to collaborate on more projects, work with businesses around town, and give the KC filmmaking industry traction. There is too much potential to ignore, and it would be short-sided and a wasted opportunity not to utilize the talent and provide filmmakers with more opportunities and local venues to show their work. The technological and artistic Renaissance that is happening right now is seeing hundreds of start-up businesses trying to gain their own traction, so the possibilities for filmmakers, artists and techies to collaborate on projects are endless, not to mention the ability to combine resources for extremely innovative and creative industrials and ad campaigns.

The challenge is that this is not common knowledge, especially for businessmen. Kansas City has a tradition of being an agricultural and industrial town. It is known primarily as this kind of town, and not much has happened in the past century to change that opinion - at least not for those who haven't been paying attention. Yes, Kansas City has a large agricultural and industrial scene. It is also the birthplace and training ground of filmmakers, actors and movie houses that have changed entertainment: Oscar-winning filmmaker Robert Altman, Oscar winner Chris Cooper, Ginger Rogers, Golden Globe winner Eric Stonestreet, AMC Theatres . . . and who can forget the KCAI student whose animations of a mouse changed filmmaking and family entertainment as we know it - Walt Disney. These are just a few of local Kansas City natives who have gone on to become innovative filmmakers who revolutionized the scope of film.

Now it's time to not only keep our talent at home but give their projects support and exposure. Entertainment is increasingly digital and online, so the incentive to move to one of the coasts to "break into show business" is less necessary. The technology and the resources for KC-based filmmakers are all right here. Production studios abound in Kansas City. You can see a list of some of them hereVespera Films is producing great work, and its founder, Cara Myers, is an Emmy-winning KCAI alum who still lives and works here.  KC WIFT provides ample opportunities for women filmmakers. Flipt Pictures and Bazillion Pictures are fantastic animation and production studios; Hint produces outstanding work and just created one of the most innovative websites I've seen. These are just a slim few of the production companies in town. Filmmakers in Kansas City have the ambition and passion to experiment and are not jaded by the corporate aspect of the industry or by practically unlivable conditions that so many prospective filmmakers face in LA and NYC. We are still able to be experimental without worrying about studio demands and can use our creativity to produce engaging stories not often told. The scene may be smaller than LA and NYC, but the community is smart, hard-working, talented and driven. We just need to keep experimenting, collaborating, and exposing the work to a larger audience.

Cinema KC wants to increase the exposure of local filmmakers and, like Sundance, give them an opportunity to showcase their work that they wouldn't ordinarily have. It holds community events and screenings twice a month, with screenings at The Screenland Cinemas at Crown Center, and it has a weekly television series showcasing local films on KCPT that airs Thursday at 10:30pm and Sunday at 5pm. The company wants to make the Kansas City filmmaking industry thrive and gain national/international attention by increasing screenings and collaborations with other artists and businesses in town. It is a mission that is possible to achieve.

It can be achieved because it's good business. Filmmaking is lucrative. Last year, the industry provided $120 million of revenue in Kansas City and $300-$350 million in the state of Missouri. Each film that is made requires a crew of employees - the next time you're at the movies, watch the end credits to see how many people are involved in making a film - so each one of those crew members getting paid gives money back to the state in income taxes. Crews need to eat, so local eateries make money from catering. Films need a soundtrack, so local musicians can partner with filmmakers, and costumers and make-up artists and production designers all contribute and add to economic benefits of filmmaking. Once the film is shot, post-production houses package it into a final product, so post production companies pay editors, After Effects specialists, et al., not to mention the rent for the building where they work. Filmmaking makes money. 

Filmmaking is a good investment. There is no cap in subject material in films, so the number of diverse audiences that can and will see these films is endless. Better stories and better films mean happier and bigger audiences to attend the theaters, which means more business and more revenue. Better business -> More investors -> More money -> More exposure -> More interest -> etc. It's basic economics. Filmmaking is not merely a creative hobby and it is not just an artistic outlet; it is good business. Imagine how much better it can be in KC if more investors got involved. The filmmaking business in Kansas City needs traction by involving more investors who see the opportunity for economic growth and can foster the talent. Part of this includes funding for better advertising for film showcases and event sponsorship. 

In addition to finding investors, it is important for legislators to see the economic potential of filmmaking. The Missouri Senate Bill 387 recently cut the film production tax credit from $4.5 million to $3.5 million which goes into effect in 2014. In order to attract filmmakers to stay in Kansas City, legislators need to realize that doing this only hurts them in the long run. A lack of tax incentives means that filmmakers will seek venues in other cities in order to make their films, and they will leave Kansas City. It is imperative to encourage our local talent to stay in Kansas City to work. 

An article came out recently in which the veteran actor, Richard Tyson, talks about his involvement with a Lees Summit film, and he supports the idea that filmmakers no longer need to move out of their hometown in order to work. He says, "Well, nowadays, with the technology, you can shoot anywhere. You get some local investors and the legislators to back you (with tax credits and incentives) and you can do some surprising things. You don’t have to go live in Hollywood, which sounds great, but it’s different once you show up on the bus.” He adds that with the advent of technology and the dedication of local talent, Hollywood-style productions are not only possible in cities like Lee’s Summit and Kansas City, but are the wave of the future. 

So it's time to get to work. Cinema KC is not the only venture in town that is trying to boost the film scene here, but so far its traction has come a long way. As a non-profit, however, it relies on grants to fund its efforts. Many of the foundations in Kansas City still focus on theatre and fine arts, and the way they are set up, they don't often allow for filmmakers to apply for them, at least not the ones with which I am familiar. Increasing the amount of collaboration between filmmakers and other artists would help improve this dilemma. Funding is the main obstacle to overcome in the effort to boost filmmaking and film distribution in town. With constant efforts to attract businessmen and investors by showing them the financial opportunities that stem from films, the goal to turn KC into a filmmaking power player is completely viable.

Check out CinemaKC's panel at 1MillionCups: kauffmanfoundation/1MC112713/videos/35909088

*Opinions stated in this blog are my own and are not affiliated with any of the mentioned associations.