A veteran producer of faith-based films is accusing officials in the Hawaii Film Office of discriminating against his Christian-themed historical movie and conspiring to deny a substantial tax credit due his production.
Tim Chey, director and producer of the upcoming movie “The Islands,” has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Hawaii seeking $100 million in punitive damages.
The suit claims fraud and deceit, violation of civil rights, civil conspiracy, intentional misrepresentation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other charges.
In addition to the Hawaii Film Office, the suit names as defendants state Film Commissioner Donne Dawson and film office specialist Benita Brazier, former Maui film commissioner.
The suit says the filmmaker did everything required of him, but the defendants “blatantly lied, hid, conspired, slandered, and finally sabotaged” his attempts to make his movie and earn the state’s 20 percent tax rebate.
The complaint describes the defendants as “juvenile,” “sneaky” and “the most incompetent governmental film employees he has ever worked with in his 22 years and 12 movies in the industry.”
State Film Office spokeswoman Christine Hirasa said the state Attorney General’s Office advised the film office against commenting on the litigation. She added that state attorneys will be defending the office in court.
Chey is a part-time Hawaii resident and Harvard- and University of Southern California-educated film producer and director who has produced a dozen Christian-themed movies over the last couple of decades. He is also an attorney and he filed the suit himself.
The independent filmmaker made the news a year and a half ago when he announced the upcoming production of a motion picture capturing the arc of Hawaiian history from Capt. James Cook’s 1778 arrival to the 1893 overthrow of Hawaii’s last monarch.
Chey pledged to hire Native Hawaiians in most of the lead roles and vowed to discontinue the project if he didn’t land one of a list of 16 A-list actors for the part of Cook, including Tom Hanks, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson, Anthony Hopkins and Kevin Costner.
In the end, Chey excluded Cook, Kamehameha and Lili‘uokalani and focused on only one story: that of Hawaii island Chiefess Kapiolani, who in 1824 boldly defied Pele in a display of her new Christian faith and descended into an active volcano.
“The Islands,” starring Mira Sorvino and John Savage, was shot a year ago at Kualoa Ranch and is scheduled to open in theaters in March.
After filming wrapped up in December, Chey told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that instead of making one sweeping, historical movie, he decided to break up the stories into four movies — although he conceded that the fate of the three remaining films likely depended on how “The Islands” performed at the box office.
In any case, Chey has vowed in his lawsuit never to film in Hawaii again.
According to the complaint, Chey made obtaining the state’s tax credit a priority because it would cover 20 percent of the film’s budget.
In more than 60 emails and phone calls, Chey worked to meet every requirement, making sure every receipt and tax identification number of crew and cast members was submitted, the suit says.
Inexplicably, the film office dragged its feet in responding to Chey’s inquiries about the status of the tax credit only to say months later that the receipts and pay stubs were invalid, according to the complaint.
Hawaii Film Office personnel also exhibited unethical behavior and “outrageous conduct” in, first, calling to express concerns about the content of the film and later releasing confidential budget information to a production employee who, after she was fired, turned around and sued Chey in small claims court, the complaint says.
The defendant’s actions left the film in “total chaos” and over budget, the court document says.
“This reprehensible conduct is for no other reason than to ‘teach’ the filmmaker a lesson for possibly making a faith-based film about Native Hawaiian history,” the suit claims.
“The film is based on a true story and anything done on the governmental level to oppose (the filmmaker) is complete and total discrimination against his religion and unequivocally violates the filmmaker’s First Amendment rights to free speech,” it says.
According to the State Film Office website, the 20 percent motion picture income tax credit is based on a production company’s Hawaii expenditures while shooting a film in the islands.
To earn the credit, productions must spend at least $200,000 in the state, make reasonable efforts to hire local talent and crew, and make “financial or in-kind contributions or educational or workforce development efforts” in support of the local film, television and digital media industries valued at 0.1 percent of Hawaii expenditures or $1,000, whichever is greater.
Georja Skinner, chief officer of the state Creative Industries Division, which oversees the film office, wouldn’t address the complaint specifically, but she did say film office personnel are careful to follow the law and treat every tax credit applicant equally.
“We stick to the letter of the law,” she said.
Chey is no stranger to legal skirmishes during his film career. He has filed lawsuits against Facebook, Netflix and a Christian film distributor, among others, in an effort to fight what he sees as wrongs against himself and his films.
He was also sued by at least two people who worked on “The Islands,” both of whom claimed they weren’t fairly compensated. He ended up countersuing one of them before dropping the complaint.
In his latest lawsuit, Chey starts with the following introduction:
“According to The Center for Public Integrity, the State of Hawaii received a D+ overall grade for integrity of government; NPR says the State of Hawaii is considered the most corrupt government of all 50 states; and finally, in a recent poll, people believe Hawaii is run like a ‘Third-World country.’
“Is it any wonder then that the Defendant Hawaii Film Office has committed overt and stark fraud by not honoring its 20 percent rebate that it advertised…?”
The 133-page complaint is replete with vitriol as urges the court to severely punish Dawson and Brazier for working outside the scope of their jobs. It threatens an additional “whistle-blower lawsuit,” a complaint to the FBI and the garnishing of wages, and notes that if Dawson and Brazier file for bankruptcy, he will counter with an adverse proceeding to block their efforts.
“The Defendants have essentially ‘raped’ the Filmmaker of the bread off his table and destroyed three future movies that took ten years to create,” the complaint says.
The suit also discusses the troubles Chey experienced while making the film, including receiving death threats, having conflicts with union members and Hawaiian activists “who threatened to shut down the production on numerous instances.”