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Montgomery Advertiser

Local News-Sept. 22, 2002

Director helps attract stars

By Brett Clanton
Montgomery Advertiser

Brian Kurlander gets kidded a lot for having the best job in state government.

As executive director of the Alabama Film Office, Kurlander is responsible for attracting movie and television productions to the state as well as nurturing an indigenous film industry here.

A New Yorker who first came to Montgomery in 1996 to act at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Kurlander has been director of the film office since July 2001.

He took the reins of the office just as a Gov. Siegelman-backed tax incentive package for the film industry was clearing the Legislature. With the sales, use and lodging tax abatements and a new advertising campaign in place, Kurlander says the state now is poised to see the big gains in the film industry.

Kurlander spoke with the Advertiser last week about the health of Alabama's film industry now, where it's likely to grow and how close he was to getting that part on "Will and Grace" a few years back.

Q: What kind of annual economic impact does the film industry now represent in Alabama?

A: Anywhere from $10 million to $20 million. Up until the legislation, there was no means to track the economic impact. You're taking educated guesses and quantifying that with various economic development multipliers. But now, I'm looking at the production that's coming in, and I can determine a fairly accurate economic impact.

The U.S. film industry and many state film industries suffered in the late '90s as more American directors found it cheaper to film in Canada than in Hollywood. Is Alabama still feeling the effects of that trend?

No. In fact, I'd say we're definitely on an upslope because of the resources that have been made available to bring the industry to the state. Up until 1999, there was no thought of this as an industry. It was merely a service that was necessary, you know, because lots of documentaries were coming through or because we had a lot of commercial production. So there needed to be a resource at the state level to guide people to the right places. But now, it's being used as an economic development recruiter, so that we have more opportunities to grow and expand and educate the broad scope of economic development possibilities that Alabama represents.

Where do you have to do the most education in that regard, I mean, in convincing people that building the film industry is economic development?

Well, it's internal and external. I would definitely be considered an outsider coming from New York; however, I consider Alabama my home. I think it has a little more resonance when I say: "Yes, I've lived in New York. I've lived in Los Angeles. I've experienced a lot of different things." But there's no place I'd rather be than Alabama, and here's what I've noticed: It's the people and their ingenuity and their innovative entrepreneurial spirit that creates such a great atmosphere.

But I'm sure film directors are looking for more than good people when they consider bringing a multimillion dollar film project to a state. How do you sell Alabama as a good place to film?

You have to shift the context with which people see Alabama. Coming from New York, I perceived Alabama in a certain context, and it was a past-generated context. It had nothing to do with present Alabama. The Alabama that exists today is an Alabama that's become the automotive center of America or the Detroit of the South.

Even still, what is the attraction for a filmmaker?

Alabama's the most biodiverse state in America outside of California. That really breaks down, in layman's terms, as locations. And diversity of locations in very small geographic areas. It doesn't take very long to get from these places. So, all of the sudden it's about time, and OK, time is money. Now we're talking. The bottom line in this industry is often, and it sounds like a Yogi Berraism, but the bottom line is the bottom line.

I also think we've got a very sophisticated approach to introducing people to our brand, which is a simple but elegant logo; a good catch phrase, which is "Alabama, the Country to Film in;" and a sizzle video that shows off all of Alabama's assets.

When we talk about growing the film industry in Alabama, what's the best way to do that: by luring more out-of-state productions to shoot here or by building a self-sufficient infrastructure of filmmakers and studios?

That's a great question, and I think it leads to why Canada and Australia and New Zealand are having such unprecedented success now with film production. They are not as much luring production as they are creating production. They're nurturing filmmakers in their areas. They're creating opportunities for indigenous filmmakers to grow and create and learn and get out and want to come back. That's how you do it. You have to nurture not only from the creative standpoint, but from the economic standpoint and provide people with the opportunities to work here.

Would you say there is a big pool of talent in the Alabama film industry now?

Absolutely. The best part about my job is going out around the state and meeting the extraordinary talent that's out there.

Now the idea is that we build bridges across Alabama and connect these people together. The pieces are out there in Alabama to create the puzzle, and when they all fit together, the picture is going to be extraordinary because we're going to be able to start utilizing resources from Huntsville to Mobile, from the Shoals area to Dothan, and really start to see a percolation of young talent come out of this state.

Is it the mission of this office to say: We can live on a steady diet of smaller productions rather than breaking our backs to lure a few blockbusters here?

Yes. A lot of smaller productions ultimately can have the same economic impact. I've been told that a $12 million film can have a similar economic impact to a movie with a much larger budget. The amount of people they're bringing in, the amount of time they're staying at local hotels, the trucks that they'll be renting -- it's the same. The bottom line is, if we have smaller productions and an indigenous film base, those elements of the infrastructure necessary for supporting bigger productions ultimately will start popping up -- the rental houses, the sound stages, the accommodations. It's a huge ripple. For a production that comes to Montgomery, you're looking at 200 people to accommodate over six months. Those numbers alone are fairly staggering. And that doesn't include what they spend individually.

If I'm a filmmaker who lives in Alabama, are there incentives in place to encourage me to shoot here?

They are the same credits that are available to anyone.

Are there incentives in place now for people who want to invest in film projects?

The next step that we have to do, and this is cut and dry: we need to empower investors to invest in Alabama industry, particularly in the Alabama film industry. We need to do what some other states have done, which is to provide investor tax incentives.

Is your office working on new legislation that includes a motion picture investor tax credit?

Yes. We're constantly collecting information and data about what's going on around the country and taking that and crafting that into something that's going to be beneficial for the state.

Is there a particular niche of the film industry that Hollywood has neglected that Alabama could go after?

We host scores of documentaries every year. That's an area I think we've done very well in.

Also, I think cultivating independent filmmakers, really, is the way because the industry is decentralizing from the traditional film centers. And we're going to see a lot more film production in the South because the South is becoming a highly incentivized region of the country. And you've got good weather down here most of the year, which makes it easier for filmmakers to do what they do. Because you always can make it bad, but you need a pretty big sound stage to make the weather good.

There's a rumor floating around that you were almost cast as Will on the hit series "Will and Grace." Is there any truth to that?

(Laughing) No. I auditioned for Will and Grace when I was out in L.A. I also auditioned for "Melrose Place." (sarcastically) But I was booked, so I couldn't take the gig.