February 19, 2003
Film conference in Livingston producing means for economic and creative development

BY DEON LACKEY, WEEKLY STAFF WRITER

At the tail end of 2001, the Livingston Depot Center was the scene of a brief film conference, 2001: A Film Odyssey. “We expected 30 people,” Dennis Aig, associate professor of film at Montana State University, “and we had 400.” The overwhelming response led Aig and other organizers to develop the Montana Film Center, a not-for-profit that encourages interest in the film history of and the development of film industry in Montana. Although MFC had a kick-off ceremony last spring, it took over a year from that first conference to develop the next installment, coming this weekend, Feb. 21 and 22.

“This is much more ambitious than the other one,’” Aig commented. “This is not a film/art conference. The goal is to get people to recognize Montana as a center for film activity. It’s also a way of showcasing the state.”

Producers, directors and investors, as well as creative talent like writers, makeup artists, and cinematographers, from Los Angeles, New York, and local areas like Bozeman and Livingston are gathering for panel discussions, movie premiers and screenings, and informal meetings to promote Montana and film resources like the MSU film school and local talent to attract industry executives. “Word of mouth is the way the film industry works,” Aig explained, “and we hope they talk up Montana.”

One of the major impediments for film execs is the price of filming in the states as opposed to the generous tax breaks and incentives Canada offers. “How do we deal with that situation? How do we make it worth while?” Aig questioned. “Movies under $1 million up to $10 million can be shot here economically, but big budget features—it’s just cheaper to go to Canada.”

It’s a question worth answering, though. “This is an industry which can be developed at a really reasonable cost,” Aig continued. “If it comes in, it’s like a shot of adrenaline. Other ways of developing industry are like time release capsules. Montana’s options have become fairly limited. The traditional industries aren’t strong economically or are environmentally unacceptable. This serves multiple functions.”

Aig pointed out that, 15 years ago, Miami was barely a bleep on the cinematic radar screen, but one television show changed all that. Miami Vice trained the film community to anticipate local work, assistance, and support from Miami. Similarly, Stanford fed the Silicon Valley and kept the computer center nearby. Likewise, MSU could train skilled workers, and a possible Miami Vice is brewing in Livingston. Patrick Markey, local and Hollywood producer, is putting out feelers to launch a TV mystery series based on Livingston writer Jamie Harrison’s Jewel Clements novels. A resurgence of interest in Montana occurred after A River Runs Through It. “We became this destination for people,” Aig recalled. It could happen again with the right marketing and connections.

But there is more potential in the area than TV. The conference covers a wide variety of topics, from bringing a movie concept to studios and production to nonfiction genre like travel and wildlife films. The conference also includes four movie premiers, two of them Sundance entries which were shot in the Great Falls area by native Montanans. And, in another special addition from the first conference, there will be screenings Friday and Saturday nights of local movies (call in advance to set up a time) so that professionals can see available talent.

The emphasis of the conference is on economic development, using the film industry as a stimulant and stabilizer. This intention is underscored by the introductory keynote, Alicia Bradshaw, of the Gallatin Development Corporation. “We want to make it really clear that we’re promoting Montana industry,” Aig stated. “Building up the industry we have, instead of attracting new projects, is one of the biggest differences in attitude. We want to help areas develop their base or get stronger. We would like to have a film industry working on a consistent basis,” Aig concluded. “It’s not like we’re there yet, but we have the groundwork.”

The conference costs $40 in advance and $50 at the door. It is possible to register online or over the phone, and the cost includes the price of admission to all panel discussions and all movies, including the two showings in Bozeman on Feb. 20 and Feb. 23. For more information, call conference manager Elizabeth Reams at 570-5167.