This week, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to create a much-sought Seattle Film Commission to support local film projects. The measure has the potential to have a major impact on cinema in Seattle.
The film commission will be the bridge that connects big-budget producers to Seattle’s film industry, to create jobs for locals on the sets of Hollywood productions filmed here.
The process began in 2020 when a group of local filmmakers and producers came together to tackle inequality in the film industry. The resulting task force, with an evolving membership list that grew to 20 people at its peak, created a booklet of recommendations for the city that called for the formation of a film commission.
“It’s sort of the result of BLM and the protests,” said Abie Ekenezar, a former member of the film’s task force. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked on productions, and I’ve been able to count on one hand, how many [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] were involved. And these are big productions. So the whole reasoning of the task force was kind of to build equality and diversity.
While the task force initially aimed to address equity in the film industry, additional issues within the industry became apparent. For example, big-budget movies and shows — like “Greys Anatomy” or “Frasier” — have used Seattle as a setting, without actually filming in Seattle.
In recent years, King County and Washington State have stepped in to support the local film industry. In 2021, the county opened Harbor Island Studios, a 117,000 square foot warehouse that has been repurposed as an indoor movie studio and sound stage. The space is expected to entice Hollywood film and television producers to bring their projects to Seattle.
At the state level, the legislature passed a bill last March that will increase the annual tax break cap for filmmakers from $3.5 million to $15 million. Prior to the bill, Washington state had the third-smallest movie incentive in the nation. But the new law makes Washington state more competitive with other Pacific Northwest filming destinations — and could end the trend of filming movies set in Seattle in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“Increase the [film incentive] at $15 million is a huge change for the film industry,” said Amy Lillard, executive director of Washington Film Works, the organization responsible for administering the state incentive program. “Not only can we financially support films, but we also have $500,000 over the next two years to do workforce development focused on people from historically excluded communities. We can also do career-related learning, which helps young people realize that filmmaking is a great career. And business development, like [figuring out] how we bring the shows we want here to Seattle.
With the formation of the film commission, which will partner with the Seattle Office of Economic Development, Seattle has joined the county and state in discussing crucial steps to sustain the film industry.
Council member Sara Nelson, who drafted the legislation for the formation of the film commission, said she believes the film industry is vital to Seattle’s creative economy.
“I focus on film because it’s the most commercially viable sector within the creative economy,” Nelson said. “Cinema supports the greatest number of jobs in the greatest diversity of professions and artistic disciplines…a film production employs about 200 people. And it’s not like those [film] the producers come with a whole bunch of people. No, they hire people here in Seattle. So we’re talking about jobs, and these are jobs that pay for life, and that’s why the unions are so supportive of this company.
But the film commission will work more than just a stimulus for jobs in the creative economy. He will also be responsible for managing relationships between Hollywood and local filmmakers and advocating for policies that support industry growth.
Vee Hua, a local filmmaker who served on the film task force, said the city should keep its commitment to fairness in mind as Seattle’s film industry gains momentum.
“Pipelines and support continue to be essential for the diverse communities that have historically been underrepresented in film, and we should not fall victim to the scarcity mentality, which may dictate that there is no enough space for all communities to tell their stories,” Hua said. “There is enough space.”
For now, Seattle’s film industry is celebrating the joint efforts of the city, county and state to support its health and vitality. Nelson said she expects the film commission to form in early 2023 — then the real work to boost Seattle’s film industry and make it fairer will begin.