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Cedar Rapids... MI?

BY KIRSTEN JACOBSEN | FEBRUARY 16, 2011 7:20 AM

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For Iowa City inhabitants, the actual city of Cedar Rapids is a relatively short (and dull) drive away. But those Iowans hoping to the see the city’s namesake film are in for some out-of-state road tripping.

“Today is the first day … Of the rest of his weekend,” the film’s tag line touts, luring in the expected audience of comedic apathetes and “The Office” die-hards. A naïvely lovable insurance salesman from Wisconsin is off to a convention in Cedar Rapids in attempt to — you guessed it — save his dying company from the jaws of the free market. Upon arrival, our hero is (un)fortunate enough to meet up with three “convention veterans” who proceed to — you also guessed it — imbibe copious amounts of alcohol and partake in high jinks around the hotel and city.

While the movie likely won’t drum up nationwide recognition of, or visits to, Cedar Rapids, it brings the question of filmmaking’s future in Iowa into the spotlight. While select approved studios were able to enjoy the remaining helpings from a $50 million tax-credit pot in late 2010, recent budgetary issues in the state have forced the program to discontinue until 2013. (Ironically, the office — originally created under Gov. Terry Branstad in an age of economic capital long forgotten, and suspended by Gov. Chet Culver in an age of fiscal remorse — has been summarily deferred by Branstad’s own budgeting.)

And Iowa’s tax break for filmmakers — the Film, Television, and Video Project Promotion Program — lasted only briefly, from 2007 to a suspension in September 2009. (While the projects in motion have continued to work with the Iowa Film Office, additional assistance has since been suspended until 2013.)

Despite its short-lived existence, the program managed to posthumously whip up a number of lawsuits over mismanagement and corruption, including the largest tax-credit lawsuit in the nation just hitting the courts in Des Moines.

This has proved to be something of a double-edged sword for the industry in our state: Not only have relations likely soured with no fewer than 12 film studios, but prospective filmmakers are shying away from the area in favor of cheaper surrounding states.

Even, apparently, when filming a movie that takes place in Iowa’s second-largest city. Dropped in favor of Ann Arbor, Mich. Ouch. (Maybe next we’ll use Detroit as the backdrop for Field of Dreams 2. Grand Rapids would be great for Children of the Corn: Invasion of Furniture Row.)

The residual effects of the tax credits have added a certain ignominy to filming here, which is reportedly the impetus for Cedar Rapids’ relocation. “We were heartbroken … Our crew rallied, found all the locations we needed in Ann Arbor, and off we went,” Ed Helms, the star of the film, told KCRG-TV.

“Filmmakers tend to follow incentives,” Kay Snyder told me. Snyder is the communications director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development, which oversees the duties of the film office.

While she was unable to speculate about future moviemaking ventures in our verdant fields and particularly seasonable cities, she did admit that the number and scope of projects in the state have “dropped substantially.” Studios such as Iowa Motion Picture Association are still attempting to keep interest in local projects moving forward.

“We’ve been working with projects already with applications to move forward,” she said. While the state weathers a storm of scandal and questionable tax breaks, it is heartening to see that a few film seedlings will be nurtured until début. But doubts over whether projects will choose Iowa over industry stronghold Michigan post-2013 may leave the now-suspended tax-credit program permanently defunct. And that’s a pity.

As of printing, the movie is not showing in Cedar Rapids (save for one private screening last Thursday — how’s that for adding insult to injury?) While Iowans bide their time until Cedar Rapids comes to a theater near them, I hear we could hit up a pretty sweet party at some insurance convention just 40 minutes north of here.


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