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'People that are interested in film are hungry': Kentucky film industry takes promising turn after 2022

Between a revived incentive and a massive soundstage anticipated in Louisville, those working in Kentucky film see an industry on the cusp of something big.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Throughout the last year, Kentucky has played host to big name actors, from Orlando Bloom to Ethan Hawke.

They’ve visited our restaurants, bars and graced excited fans social media feeds.

The stars aren’t here without cause.

2022 saw a strong uptick in productions settling down in the Bluegrass. Those who know the industry best say it’s no surprise. 

Rather, it's an effort years in the making, with contributions from filmmakers and lawmakers alike.

Beth Craig Hall grooms up-and-coming Kentucky actors at the Actors Center for Training. She’s also an agent with the Helen Wells agency.

Year after year, she’s watched talented actors leave the state.

"I want kids who I've trained not to have to move to work,” Hall said.

That troubling trend, Hall said, is changing. More and more work is popping up for her actors in their own backyards.

"The fact that we have this industry here and that it's even an option is causing some little kiddo to start dreaming,” she said. “It’s an exciting time to be living here where opportunities that were never thought to be possible are possible.”

Hall said it started with made-for-TV and independent movies.

Then, as frenzied excitement over Ethan Hawke's ‘Wildcat’ filming showed, blockbusters started coming bringing both big business and big names.

“We’re seeing a definite quality improvement in terms of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) scale, the type of actors and production companies that are coming in,” Hall said. “I mean when you can go to a bar on Bardstown Road and have Andie McDowell come in, that’s a good day.”

So why Kentucky, and why now?

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The state is one of several with a film tax credit, incentivizing productions to shoot here.

Kentucky’s program first launched in 2009 and saw modest interest until 2015, when lawmakers increased reimbursements to up to 35 percent.

According to state data, applications then spiked until 2018. That year, lawmakers pressed pause capping the program and making the incentives nonrefundable.

But then, during the 2021 legislative session lawmakers retooled.

Credits are now refundable again, for as much as 35 percent of qualifying expenses. Projects are eligible for up to $10 million a year from the Kentucky Entertainment Incentive, and the state has a $75 million dollar annual cap.

Administration of the KEI program also moved to the Economic Development Cabinet, which 502 Film president Soozie Eastman said gives it a more permanent home.

“We are competitive with states all across the country, and what we have is one of the most lucrative tax credits that also has guardrails on it,” Eastman said, while visiting OHD Studios, a production house in Jeffersontown, which opened this year.

During its first revived year, 2022, the state approved about $50 million in incentives.

“That is an industry, that is not a hobby,” Eastman said. “I think if you look at our first year out of the gate with this incentive we are on track to be a next Atlanta, a next New Orleans.”  

Films can also qualify for more money if they hire Kentucky residents, like Geoffrey Storts, who works as a first assistant camera operator.

“Basically I’m the technical guy who takes care of all of the camera equipment on a shoot and runs the camera department under the cinematographer,” Storts said.

Storts spent a lot of his career moving where the money is, taking jobs in cities like New Orleans. He said there's been a welcome shift since revived incentives rolled out, and 2022 has been a game changing year for his life.

“Having them back has allowed me to continue doing that, not in a different market,” he said. “I can sleep in my own bed and drive into work with a coffee from Full Stop.”

To build permanent industry, those in Kentucky’s local film industry said a well-trained workforce is the most crucial asset.  

The Louisville Film Commission advises the city on how to build up a successful film industry.

Nathaniel Spencer serves on the board of advisors and said supporting education and training are some of the most impactful things the city can do.

“That’s how we’re going to build the infrastructure of a successful film industry,” he said.

Spencer also works with 502 Film, which he said has educated more than 450 people in the last six months.

“People that are interested in film are hungry,” he said. “They want to know, they want to learn.”

Matt Niehoff at ThoughtFly Studios said Kentucky's producers, editors and crew are sometimes underrated by people outside of the state. He believes building trust is key as film in the Commonwealth expands.

“There’s been a bit of a stipulation that people from Kentucky don’t have the background and that’s absolutely not true,” he said. "If they're shooting here, they can have their whole crew come from here, they can edit everything here, and it can all be in one place.”

“That’s kind of what our hope is, to have that hand out and say ‘hey, it’s safe here, you can trust us,’” he added.

Louisville is home to several studio spaces like ThoughtFly, which play temporary host to productions.

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ThoughtFly started mainly working on commercials, but has seen interest in services for films increase.

"Up until now we've had resources, we've had movies, but it was more come in, do one movie and leave. I think you're going to see a lot of companies that set up camp here,” the studio’s Brian Cunningham said.

Cunningham said, ultimately, major creators and productions need more space. That’s what's set to happen at the Louisville Gardens.

"The impact can't be overstated,” he said.

Last year, the city announced plans to redevelop the historic downtown venue into a massive soundstage for films and television shows to use in shooting.

“There will be people that will be able call the Louisville Gardens area a permanent home, and it will also attract a lot of productions to the community and attract those dollars as well, to be able to utilize that size space that we don’t have here right now,” Eastman said.

In a state built on bourbon and horse racing, Eastman says the burgeoning film industry is re-writing the script.  

“People will see that it's not just the first Saturday in May that makes Louisville special, it’s our culture and our values as a community that attract people here,” she said. “It is why people want to stay here and work here.”

For Hall's aspiring film stars, the future looks bright. To chase their dreams, they might not have to go very far.

"I've been accused of being a dreamer and I have no problem with that. I can see it,” Hall said. "I could see that it was coming and it's here."

So far this year, productions have applied for about $4 million in tax incentives from the KEI program, including at least two projects planning to film in Jefferson County.


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