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Shooting for film dollars: New regional film office wants in on booming state industry

ROCK FALLS – The film industry infused nearly a half-billion dollars into the state’s economy last year, and the Northwest Illinois region wants a piece of the action.

Whiteside County Economic Development Director Gary Camarano and Rock Falls Tourism Director Janell Loos have spearheaded efforts to set up the Northwest Illinois Film Office. The office has a physical presence in Loos’ tourism office, but the main emphasis is on making the website a virtual one-stop shop for television and film production teams.

“Scouts do a lot of their research before they visit a prospective site, and we want to make it easy for them,” Loos said. “We want them to come here by design, not by accident.”

Work on the website has started, but Camarano said it won’t be rushed because they want to get a lot of input and do it right.

The site will include thumbnails of prime film locations, downloadable permits, the Illinois Production Guide, and contact information for anyone or anything a production crew could need. Then the office will reach out to location managers to let them know they are film-friendly.

The best way to grab the industry’s attention is with incentives, and Illinois has consistently ranked in the top five nationally since the General Assembly passed the Illinois Film Services Tax Credit Act in 2008.

Illinois offers a 30 percent tax credit on all qualifying production expenses, plus an additional 15 percent credit for hiring residents in areas considered economically disadvantaged. In addition, the state requires that a minimum of $100,000 be spent on a project, a much lower ceiling that most states. The only state with a better tax credit deal is Oklahoma, which offers 35 percent.

“Hollywood is very conscious of the bottom line, so the incentives make a big difference,” Camarano said. Illinois has good incentives in addition to having beautiful locations, so it’s a great one-two punch.”

The idea of the region becoming film-friendly has been talked about before, but Camarano had set up a film office when he was the economic development director in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Now the idea is becoming a process.

“We started laying the groundwork for this at the beginning of the year, and it’s picked up speed,” Camarano said. “Tourism is an industry cluster, and we want this to truly be a regional office.”

The parameters will be even more expansive than most regional development projects, so as to incorporate scenic gems from the Rock to Mississippi rivers, and the Fulton windmills to the bluffs of Jo Daviess County.

Katy Williams of Sterling, an economics student at Northern Illinois University, is a summer intern in the tourism office. She has been tasked with reaching out to towns and organizations to bring them into the project.

The help of residents will be needed to put together the site catalog for the website. The office plans to have a contest for engaging residents’ help in finding the best locations.

“We need the help of people in the communities that participate because they know what’s unique in their area,” Loos said. “This is the kind of thing that is fun for communities, but it also drives the economy.”

Camarano is a big believer in the film component of tourism. Not only is it a unique opportunity to market a region, it creates jobs and puts people in hotels, restaurants and stores.

“Part of ‘Captain Fantastic’ was filmed in Las Cruces,” Camarano said. “They needed a Phoenix lookalike, and we got the project because Arizona really didn’t have any incentives. That project created 900 hotel nights.”

One of the Midwest’s better-known filming coups was the 1989 release, “Field of Dreams,” which brought an economic windfall to Dyersville, Iowa, that lasted for decades. A tiny two-person Iowa film office and the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce rolled out the red carpet for Universal Studios, which spent more than $5 million in the town of about 4,000.

The film’s success brought tourists in droves, helped entice businesses to the area, and brought several other film projects to Iowa.

The office is initially funded by Camarano’s office and Rock Falls Tourism, but it’s hoped that other participants will make contributions that will elevate their status on the website.

“We’re working on a shoestring budget of about $10,000, but if this is successful, we will consider spending more,” Camarano said.

Other organizations involved in the project include Blackhawk Hills Regional Council, Blackhawk Waterways Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Small Business Development Center at Sauk Valley Community College, Morrison Area Development Corporation and Sauk Valley Area Chamber of Commerce.

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