Lights, camera, funding?

Kansas City’s filming incentives brought big-name reality productions, local jobs, and millions in revenue. Why don’t we have them at the state level?
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You Shoot Videos; film by Morgan Cooper. // Photo by Libby Zander

Ever wondered why Netflix’s Ozark, which is set in rural Missouri, was actually filmed in Atlanta? For that matter, why did the fourth season of Fargo, which was set in Kansas City, film in Chicago? 

Steph Shannon, the head of Kansas City’s film office, can tell you. She was there when the Fargo production representatives came to visit. “We hosted their scouts, but they shot in Illinois because it was cheaper,” she says.

Unfortunately, this budgeting folly isn’t a one-off occurrence. The root of the problem can be summed up in two words: filming incentives. 

To boost jobs and regional economies, many states offer competitive perks packages that make it financially attractive to shoot movies or TV shows there. Packages can come in the form of tax credits, exemptions, grant money, or other benefits that ultimately make it less expensive to film in certain locations. In almost all cases, a production agrees to spend an allotted amount of money within the state, and hire a designated crew of locals in order to qualify for these incentives. 

Shannon says these programs tend to vary by location, taking into account state budgets and the size of a given market. “They’re individually developed to be a good fit for the state that’s creating them,” she explains.

Statewide incentive programs are a driving force behind the filmmaking hubs around the country that make it possible to build a career on film sets outside of New York or Los Angeles. Cities like Austin, Atlanta, Chicago, and New Orleans have built up entire local industries on the backs of the productions they draw. Recently, Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming film Killers of the Flower Moon and the FX series Reservation Dogs brought money and outside attention to Oklahoma when they filmed in the area. 

Incentives benefit more than just people working in the industry, says Max Thomas, owner of the Kansas City, Kansas-based equipment house Lights On.

“I see it as a healthy way to subsidize businesses from a public standpoint,” Thomas says. “Productions can benefit hotels, restaurants, caterers, and people who sell wardrobe items. Having a public subsidy is a benefit, in a broad sense, for lots of small businesses based in the creative arts.”

When incentive agreements are in place, it means that when a production comes to town, so do jobs. It also means that local productions have an easier time getting their projects off the ground. Neither Kansas nor Missouri currently have statewide filming incentive programs, which means investors are far less likely to greenlight a project that wants to shoot here.

“They are such a huge deal,” says Jill Gevargizian, a producer and director who shot her first feature, The Stylist, in Kansas City. “I had a project I was pitching at Fantasia [the Canadian genre film festival], and every conversation with investors was, ‘Where will you shoot? What are the incentives there?’ They don’t care about the project itself; they care most about where you’re shooting and what they can get out of it.”

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Queer Eye Netflix series. // Photo by Christopher Smith

“It wasn’t a priority.”

This region wasn’t always missing out on the film business. Shannon says that when incentive packages—a common practice across other industries that states might court for jobs—started within the film industry roughly two decades ago, Missouri was one of the first states to offer an incentive program. That program concluded in 2013 and was never revived.

“The sunset was written into the bill language,” Shannon says. “When the attempt was made to reinstate it, other things pulled the attention of legislators, and it wasn’t a priority.” 

Kansas, similarly, had a short-lived incentive program between 2009 and 2012. Bills reinstating filming incentives in Kansas and Missouri are currently in the works after a long process of convincing officials to get on board. 

In the meantime, Kansas City has been making inroads of its own. The city passed a local incentive in 2015, making us the lone example of a city with an incentive package in a state without one. Kansas City’s package offers a 10% cash rebate on qualified expenses inside city limits, with certain requirements attached.

“Because of that, we’ve been able to pitch for projects we aren’t usually able to pitch for,” Shannon says. “I’ve hosted scouts for productions that are bigger than our usual market because they were willing to consider us,” Shannon says. 

That effort helped bring Queer Eye to Kansas City in 2018 for its fourth season. The same production company behind the show, Scout Productions, chose to return to KC to shoot the upcoming Peacock reality series The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning based on the success of that previous experience.

“When they made Queer Eye here in 2018, they had a good production experience and support from the city, our office, and the community. Because of that experience, they’ve helped us get our hats in the ring for multiple projects since,” Shannon says. “With the local incentive program, I was able to assemble a pitch package and get help from the mayor’s office. We got some help from [SNL star and former KC resident] Heidi Gardner, and included other elements that are part of a traditional pitch, like potential locations, crew options, and housing options.”

For Scout Productions co-founder and executive producer Michael Williams, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning will mark his third time filming in Kansas City, his previous outings here being Queer Eye and the 1995 TV movie Truman. “The city has been so welcoming to us, from the Kansas City Film Office to the various people we’ve met over the years,” Williams says. “We are happy to be able to provide jobs to the community while bringing in business to the shops, restaurants, hotels, and other establishments.”

Williams’ fellow Scout co-founder and executive producer David Collins also notes KC’s openness and production capabilities as a major draw. “This is a very production-friendly community, and I have personally made some friends here over the years,” he says. “The city has a real charm.” 

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Photo by Libby Zander

The retention problem

The promise of repeat business from a major production company, and increased interest around the cause of reinstated film incentives, means more work for local filmmakers like Ryan Njenga, who says that for most filmmakers who live here, getting steady work normally means working in advertising.

“That’s how we try to put money aside and fund more creative projects,” says Njenga, whose non-commercial work includes short films and music videos for regional acts. 

While that work pays the bills, filmmaker Jacob Burghart says plenty of local creatives would prefer to work on their passion projects instead. “We have so many people who want to make movies, who are sick of doing commercials, and are passionate about narrative filmmaking.” 

Between the lack of state financial support for their own projects, and slim possibilities for industry work with projects coming in from outside the region, retaining qualified artists is becoming a problem. Njenga says that while he plans to keep working here, the temptation to leave is strong. “People want to stay in KC, but if it’s your dreams versus that, a lot of people are pushed to move,” he says.

The lack of statewide filming incentives has also become a major issue for artists and productions who want to work in Kansas or Missouri, but can’t make it financially feasible to do so. Actor and filmmaker David Dastmalchian, a former Overland Park resident now living in L.A., wrote and starred in the Kansas City-set 2018 feature All Creatures Here Below. 

“I want to tell the most authentic stories with the most attention to detail from my own life experience,” he says. “These localities are so under-shot in film and TV, but they’re so specific to a certain type of color scheme, flora, fauna, actual urban architecture. It’s so unique.”

Dastmalchian says he had plans to shoot another project here as well, but the lack of state assistance is making that difficult.

“I want to shoot in Kansas City. Making that a reality is becoming nearly impossible unless I get a big star to agree to do [the project] for next to nothing, or find another state that will offer us incentives, but also has the same landscape and geography that match the story I’m trying to tell,” Dastmalchian says. “If I do that, I’ll have to rewrite the whole thing, which is what I’m having to consider now. It’s really sad.”

Max Thomas, whose work has put him in close contact with Kansas City’s filmmaking scene, says more statewide support for projects in Kansas and Missouri could not only help bring in outside productions but secure the robust local talent the area already has. 

“The first example I can think of is [Bel-Air creator] Morgan Cooper. He moved to L.A., which is good for him,” Thomas says. “But there’s a certain amount of brain drain here, where people grow out of the market and need to go elsewhere.”

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Photo by Libby Zander

The metro’s growing filmmaker profile

Shannon says the KC film office currently works with around 200 productions annually. The year-over-year average economic impact of KC film office projects is around $10 million. In 2021, the impact was $15 million.

“I feel like the projects have gotten more ambitious,” Shannon says. “In the last five years, it feels like there’s been a boom in indie filmmaking in KC, both from people here and people coming from outside.”

Shannon cites the recent Mali Elfman sci-fi road trip film Next Exit, which was filmed partially in Kansas City. It’s a recent success story and the product of a relationship that started when Elfman was scouting here for a different project. “She brought her directorial debut film here to shoot because of that,” Shannon says. “We’ll absolutely take a piece of that, to be known as a place where you can find a good crew to work with, get your filming done, and go.”

On the home front, artists like Gevargizian and Burghart have experienced notable success with their work. Jake and Ben Burghart’s short film Suspense premiered at Fantasia in 2020. Gevargizian’s The Stylist premiered at Austin’s Fantastic Fest that same year, eventually receiving a home video release from the cult-favorite imprint Arrow and a streaming release on Shudder.

“It was always my dream to shoot The Stylist here because I have so much pride in our city and want to give jobs locally,” Gevargizian says. “We qualified for Kansas City’s rebate incentive, and that made a huge difference. For a film like mine, you have to hope you find money as you go, and you just have to start making it.”

Burghart says Gevargizian’s film is an example of KC’s potential as a hub for low-budget filmmaking. “You can’t make a movie for $3 million in Atlanta or L.A., but you could do that here,” he says. 

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You Shoot Videos; film by Morgan Cooper. // Photo by Libby Zander

A future hub for midwest filmmaking

Once Kansas and Missouri have incentive packages in place, Shannon says the future looks bright for developing further filmmaking resources for local and visiting productions.

“We want our people to come back and make things, stay here and make things,” Shannon says. “That’s the goal, to be a Midwest hub for production and have a diverse crew and acting offerings as well as quality facilities. We want entrepreneurs to come here, set up shop, and stay and work.” 

Ryan Njenga says he’d like to see Kansas City rise to the level of Chicago or Austin in terms of film production and cultivating local talent. “An incentive focused on supporting independent art can help make that happen,” Njenga says. “Continuing to build off what the film commission is doing and cultivating more of a community. We have a community here, but there’s not a lot of cohesion, and that could help.”

On the Kansas side, Max Thomas says efforts to get a proposed tax incentive bill to the floor for a vote will start in January when the legislative session reconvenes. “The next step for us is gathering grassroots support,” he says. “We’re starting an organization called Grow Kansas Film to get people involved as a push forward with the legislature, to get the bill to the floor and get it passed.”

Dastmalchian says that with regional talent (and outside talent with regional roots) at a critical mass, the time is right to act.

“There’s a huge contingency of talented artists in front of and behind the camera with connections here who have made names for themselves, and they’re sounding the call,” Dastmalchian says. “I’m always optimistic; I’m never going to be pessimistic about this. If it sounds like I’ve got my gloves on, it’s because I’m ready to fight.” 

Categories: Movies