Posted by Abe Sauer on June 16, 2010 11:00 AM
There's a long-running debate about whether the tax breaks that U.S. states extend to films shot within their borders produce legitimate ROI. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue estimates that it's getting back only 16 cents for every dollar in tax credits it gives out.
Add more fuel to the fire in the form of branding. The New York Times tells the tale of a zombie film denied tax credits in Michigan on the basis that it is "unlikely to promote tourism in Michigan or to present or reflect Michigan in a positive light." The filmmaker says he may now take his production elsewhere (ironically, to Massachusetts).
How can the Michigan authority know, before seeing any footoage or understanding the target audience, whether or not a film will promote tourism? Also, what exactly is "a positive light?" Like any other "product," positive light is in the eye of the beholder.
Location product placement is the phenomenon where a place featured in a film becomes a tourist draw for the respective film’s fans. Everyone knows it works with films like Night at the Museum, which created huge draws for their respective museums: the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Smithsonian in Washington.
A survey of reservations made at a ranch resort in Australia found that 70% of visitors were enticed to visit it after seeing the film Australia. But those are both examples of a location presented in a conventionally positive light. What about the flip side?
In Bruges, a film about a hitman who hates the city of Bruges, Belgium, might be seen as painting the location in a negative light (despite being gorgeously shot). Yet the city's Film Office reported a jump in tourism after its release, and even produces In Bruges-themed maps for visitors. Or there's The Hangover, a tale of drunken slobs rampaging through Las Vegas. Was that a positive film? Caesar’s Palace certainly capitalized on its starring role by offering a "Hangover Package."
The truth is that ROI should be the main concern and not how a location will be perceived because nobody can predict how filmgoers will respond. After editing, most film locations cannot even be identified. The most successful location product placements depend on the location being a real-world set piece of the film and easily identified by audiences who might want to visit.
Often the locales are so integral to the film they become part of the its title. This includes Australia, In Bruges, Night at the Museum: Smithsonian, Casablanca, Knotting Hill, Deadwood, and Manhattan, just to name a few.
And in the end, the location that benefits might not have anything to do with the filming location. Twilight, credited with spiking tourism to Forks, Washington, was mostly shot in Canada. Meanwhile, Fargo, a film that will forever haunt and stereotype North Dakota's largest city and its people, was filmed mostly in Minnesota.