DES MOINES — Iowa hasn’t exactly been heaven for filmmakers the past two years.
A scandal within the state’s film tax-credit incentive program shut it down in September 2009 and sent many would-be moviemakers, investors and proposed projects scrambling for safer havens outside Iowa.
Iowans interested in revitalizing film, television and video production are picking up the pieces of shattered dreams, though, hoping to rekindle the entertainment industry in Iowa — a state that produced “Field of Dreams,” “Bridges of Madison County,” “The Final Season,” “Twister” and “Country,” among others.
“It’s a shame the industry crashed because there were problems with the program and the oversight,” said Kimberly Busbee, owner of AriesWorks Entertainment and director of the Wild Rose Independent Film Festival. “You don’t shut down banking or insurance when there’s a problem, you deal with the problem and move forward. And so hopefully, that is the way that things will go for the state of Iowa.
Of nearly $32 million worth of state tax credits granted to 22 film companies, State Auditor David Vaudt said $25.6 million was issued improperly.
Several filmmakers have pleaded guilty to criminal charges or face upcoming trials for alleged crimes, while the former head of the Iowa Film Office is slated to be sentenced this month on a felony conviction of misconduct in office.
Officials within the Iowa Attorney General’s Office are hopeful that financial exposure once estimated as high as $330 million will end up costing the state less than $20 million once all outstanding issues are settled.
“What we don’t want to do is just sit in limbo for years while things get cleaned up,” Busbee said. “We need to move forward with positive projects and get it built back up.”
To that end, Busbee has signed on as co-director of Project Cornlight, an initiative launched by Mason City native and Hollywood actress Tanna Frederick. Project Cornlight is aimed at developing Iowa-based films and other projects that showcase Iowa creative talent and producing at least one independent film in Iowa per year.
Frederick, a University of Iowa graduate, last week announced that she was ready to accelerate the development of Project Cornlight’s first feature film, “Just Beautiful.” It features a script by screenwriter Joanna Louise Johnson and will star Frederick — also the film’s executive producer — with native Iowans Joel West and Ellen Dolan.
Frederick, who also founded the Clear Lake-based Iowa Independent Film Festival, said it’s been her dream to create professional filmmaking and other projects in Iowa. Plans include films, stage productions, industry workshops and a screenplay competition.
“Project Cornlight intends to inspire and revive the film industry here in Iowa; to foster emerging Iowa filmmakers, actors and writers; to bring back talented Iowa natives now living in other markets; and to grow artistically strong and commercially viable feature films from the Heartland,’’ according to the news release that announced the initiative’s launch.
Dave Danielson of the Iowa Motion Picture Association said efforts like Project Cornlight are needed to jump-start the film industry. It continues to function in Iowa but has been decentralized by the prolonged absence of an Iowa Film Office, he said.
“There’s activity, but it’s fragmented,” Danielson said. “The people who were here had an amazing experience, and they would like to come back.”
Busbee said she knows more than 70 people who have moved to California because the lull in activity forced them to leave Iowa, looking for work. She hopes that can turn around. One of the first priorities in that effort will be the revival of the Iowa Film Office.
Tim Albrecht, Gov. Terry Branstad’s spokesman, said the governor is interested in opening a new Iowa Film Office and has had discussions with Wendol Jarvis — who created the office in 1984 and left in 2002 over staff cuts — about reprising his role.
“The governor believes that filmmaking is good for economic development in Iowa,” Albrecht said. “However, he does not believe that the tax credits that were put forward were particularly effective, and they were badly mismanaged. So the tax credits will not play a part in that.”
Busbee said developments like Project Cornlight give hope for a positive turnaround.
“I think it’s very possible we can get people back here over time and have the industry built back up, but it’s going to take hard work and it’s going to take people having a positive attitude and some good news for a change,” Busbee added.