HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Once hoping to be known as Hollywood East, Connecticut is now actively courting the television and digital media industry, working to attract and grow companies that can meet the burgeoning demand for the content used across multiple platforms, from cable TV's TLC to the Internet's YouTube.
The push comes about a decade after the state had high hopes of luring major movies, considering so many actors, directors and crew already lived in the state. Connecticut created a new tax incentive program and built up a trained crew base that attracted big-name movie directors like Steven Spielberg, Barry Levinson, Sam Mendes and others to the state.
But in recent years, the state has focused more on productions that appear on much smaller screens.
"We still have films that are shooting here, but really the lion's share of the production activity in the state is split between television and digital media. It's sort of our niche. That's sort of where we hunt," said George Norfleet, director of Connecticut's Office of Film, Television and Digital Media.
Some Connecticut-based filmmakers are disappointed with the change in focus. They point to the decision to stop funding the Connecticut Film Industry Training Program, which trained workers in film and TV production from 2008 to 2012. The state originally invested $1 million in the program, hoping to help create a trained crew base. Filmmakers are also dismayed by the decision to suspend the state tax credits for feature films for two years, starting July 1, 2015. A group urged state legislators this year to exempt small productions that cost less than $2 million from the suspension.
While the provision didn't make it into the final budget deal this year, it will likely be resurrected in the next legislative session.
"The new language ensures that these smaller films will be made mainly by Connecticut residents and that will keep Connecticut's film industry growing," Wallingford film producer and director A.D. Calvo, owner of Goodnight Film, LLC, told state lawmakers in March. "These smaller films serve as incubators for a thriving workforce, a workforce that will attract larger budget, studio-level, film and television projects."
Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith said the state has tried to "shift away from short-term gains" and encourage studios to be established here, making them part of "our entire economic industry base."
She and Norfleet point to the growth of ESPN, World Wrestling Entertainment, NBC Sports and NBCUniversal, which tapes Maury and the Jerry Springer Show at the Stamford Media Production Center, as examples of some bigger successes for Connecticut. The state is also now home to Blue Sky Studios, the digital animation studio in Greenwich.
Connecticut is also working with smaller companies that produce varied programming such as television cooking shows, infomercials, video games for cell phones, audio books, online action movies and parodies, and even 3D animated science videos used by pharmaceutical and biotech companies. In April, Connecticut's film office co-sponsored the inaugural Tribeca Digital Creators Market in New York City. The event was billed as the first marketplace for digital and online content, where creators could connect with buyers, producers and agents.
At that event, Connecticut highlighted the tax credit program, which provided $91.5 million in tax credits to 36 production companies that spent an estimated $348 million in fiscal year 2015 in the state on qualified digital and TV productions. The credit covers up to 30 percent of what's spent in Connecticut, ranging from salaries to rental equipment.
The film office has also refocused its job training efforts on digital media production. This summer will mark the second year of The Digital Media CT, a training program the office developed with the University of Connecticut's Stamford campus.
James Amann was Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2007 when the effort to grow both the film and digital media industries began. While he's happy with the state's progress made with the digital industry, he says Connecticut "fell very short" on continuing to bring movies to the state.
Now a lobbyist, Amann represents about 900 small filmmakers. He said one could someday open a studio and "be the next big deal."
"There was a bridge built," he said. "But unfortunately, one lane has been completed on the digital end. But the other lane is sitting dormant in mothballs."