Lights, camera but too little action

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Thousands of filmgoers attend screenings each year of the area’s three film festivals.

Thousands of filmgoers attend screenings each year of the area’s three film festivals.

The Springs’ film community struggles for notice, support

The Colorado Springs Film Commission’s website says the area’s “film resource community is one of the best-kept secrets in the West!”

One of the more important secrets, according to local filmmaker Pete Schuermann, is that there’s no Colorado Springs Film Commission per se.

“It’s just a phone line at the CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau),” said Schuermann. “There really isn’t any local support for film or for filmmakers.”

Despite that, Colorado Springs does have a vibrant and varied, if small, film community.

Three film festivals — the Lavender film festival, the Rocky Mountain Women’s film festival, and Indies Spirit — each screen dozens of films to thousands of attendees every year. Colorado College, UCCS and Pikes Peak Community College sponsor mini-festivals throughout the year. Locally made films are always part of the festival menu.

One such film, “The Last Bogatyr,” directed by 21 year-old UCCS student Sarah Lotfi, has received national recognition. Lotfi was one of nine young filmmakers to be nominated for a Student Academy Award. “The Last Bogatyr,” set in Russia during World War II, was shot on a shoestring budget along the Front Range, and premiered in Colorado Springs in January.

The film was made for almost nothing — an example, says Kevin Shand of the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media, of the “democratization of filmmaking.”

“Technology has democratized filmmaking,” Shand said. “You can shoot a pretty good movie with a $5,000 camera, maybe get it into art houses, on Amazon, on NetFlix, give your investors a decent return, pay your bills, and go on to the next project.”

Schuermann, 45, has done just that — and better.

He’s directed two feature-length films, as well as dozens of shorts, trailers, and commercials. His widely praised documentary “Haze” focused on the dangers of binge drinking on college campuses.

Schuermann is now working on a new feature, “Creep!” It’s the story behind the creation of one of the worst films ever, “The Creeping Terror,” a 1960s sci-fi/horror feature.

The city’s most successful filmmaker, Ginger Kathrens, has worked out of her production studio on the west side for the last 25 years.

Kathrens won multiple Emmys in 1993 for her documentary, “Spirits of the Rainforest.” She’s also well-known for three hour-long films for PBS in which Kathrens documented the birth and life of Cloud, a wild stallion whom she first filmed as a newborn colt in 1995.

Kathrens currently devotes her time to the Cloud foundation, which is dedicated to the protection of wild horses. She’s not working on any film projects, however.

“I’d like to be working,” she said with a laugh, “so if you know of anything, let me know.”

Schuermann hopes for greater support some day from the powers that be.

The lack of money makes that difficult.

“The film commission is only part of my job,” said CVB employee Floy Kennedy. “Our funding has been cut back, like everybody’s.”

More incentives sought

Shand, for one, believes Colorado is losing millions of dollars in economic activity every year because it offers so little in tax incentives to film production companies.

“We’re at the bottom,” he said. “We haven’t written a check in the last two years. A couple of years ago I was talking to a producer, laying out our incentives, and she just said, ‘We’re not coming there’ and hung up.”

They’re not hanging up on states like New Mexico.

In 2002, New Mexico established a film incentive program that offered filmmakers tax rebates, workforce subsidies and even state-funded investment.

The incentives worked, according to a 2009 Ernst & Young analysis.

The program, which offers a 25 percent post-production rebate to moviemakers, created more than 9,000 jobs by attracting “more than 115 major film productions to New Mexico since its adoption,” the accounting firm’s report said.

Colorado, in contrast, offers a 10 percent rebate of certain production costs to companies shooting movies, commercials or television episodes within the state.

Colorado University’s Leeds School of Business earlier this year recommended the state increase the rebate from 10 percent to 15-20 percent to prevent the film production industry from shedding 30 percent of its jobs by 2013.

Despite the study’s prediction that increasing existing incentives would grow industry output by 55 percent to $226 million over the same period, the state legislature made only a few minor tweaks in the program, leaving the rebate at 10 percent.

According to the Leeds study, the legislature’s inaction may cost the state more than 1,500 primary jobs and as many indirect jobs.

Since “Things to do in Denver when you’re Dead” in 1994, only a handful of movies have been shot in Colorado.

Decades ago, Hollywood studios often filmed major productions in Colorado. Iconic American films such as “Stagecoach,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and “Downhill Racer” were shot wholly or partially in the state. And half a century ago, “One Minute to Zero,” a wartime drama starring Robert Mitchum and Ann Blyth, was filmed entirely in Colorado Springs.

Film incentives are offered by more than 40 states today. New Mexico is the most incentive-laden state in the intermountain West, while Nevada is the least.

Colorado and Colorado Springs aren’t completely shut out of the entertainment business.

The CVB’s Kennedy said the area often hosts film and video productions.

“Most of what we get is reality TV, HGTV episodes, commercials and documentaries,” she said. “Last year, Hyundai filmed a national commercial here.”

A Hyundai commercial is not the apex of filmmaking, of course, but it’s not chopped liver.

“They’ll spend $500,000 to $1 million in a few days, use local resources and the money flows right into the Colorado economy,” Shand said.

Matt Stevens, a principal mover of the Indie Spirit film festival, thinks the state could do more to help, though he seems to understand why it can’t — at least for the moment.

“We got some support from the Downtown Development Authority for the (Indie Spirit) festival,” he said, “and the CVB worked out a trade with the Warehouse (restaurant) to sponsor a dinner, so the out-of-town filmmakers got a free meal.

“(But) given how broke everyone is, I was surprised that they could even do that.