There’s a lot of talk in Hawaii about diversifying the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 disaster. Nowhere is that talk louder than on Maui, where unemployment figures are some of the highest in the nation due to the island’s hyper-dependence on the battered and bruised tourism industry.
Could Hollywood be the ticket?
Maui Film Commissioner Tracy Bennett believes so. He says the industry has the potential to become a substantial economic driver for the island.
“With our tourism taking hits and no immediate reopening in sight, our industry is at the forefront to develop projects, jobs and raise the bar of the type and amount of money visitors spend in Hawaii,” Bennett said.
But, he added, it will still need a helping hand if it is to truly blossom on Maui.
“The history of film and television in Hawaii has been dominated by Oahu, simply because they’ve had a majority of the necessary infrastructure, crew, soundstages, equipment, facilities and union leadership for decades,” Bennett said.
While all of the islands have dazzling white-sand beaches, waterfalls, jungles and tropical settings, it’s lower airfares and hotel rates and the ease of getting permits that lead most producers and studios to gravitate toward Oahu, which has hosted 85% to 90% of all incoming productions in the state.
Those productions have been coming to Hawaii in increasing numbers in recent years, thanks in large part to the state’s film tax credit established in 2006. The tax credit acts like a rebate on a percentage of production spending and is 20% on Oahu and 25% for neighbor islands projects.
But the extra 5% just isn’t enough to attract the bigger movies and TV series to the neighbor islands in most cases, according to Bennett.
Every once in a while, Maui will play host to a large-scale movie, but ultimately, producers and studios tend to go where it’s easier and cost-effective to shoot, he said.
“In today’s industry the bottom line is essentially all that matters,” he said, adding that even with the tax credit advantage, it costs “exorbitantly more” to bring cast and crew, camera, gear and transportation equipment to the neighbor islands.
Bennett, a former motion picture still photographer who was appointed Maui film commissioner in 2013, says he’s tried to lobby legislators to bump up the neighbor island tax credit, to no avail.
Eight years ago it seemed like film production might be ready to take off on Maui. Part-time resident Ryan Kavanaugh, chief executive of Relativity Media, announced his intention to build a film studio on the Valley Isle, and former Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa was behind him, lobbying the state Legislature to get Kavanaugh extra tax breaks.
Meanwhile, Socrates Buenger opened Maui Film Studios in a 21,000-square-foot space at the Maui Lani Village Center in Kahului and reportedly was close to luring some major Hollywood productions.
Bennett said he and his predecessor, Harry Donenfeld, worked hard to market the new studios, but the space ultimately didn’t work for the productions considering it.
Today the space is home to Ultimate Air trampoline park, and Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media recently declared bankruptcy.
While most projects choose Hawaii for its beaches, jungles, waterfalls and culture, there’s no doubt having a soundstage would help reel in some big films or TV shows.
“I was told by a major film producer a few years ago that Hawaii needed a large movie studio complex, with office space, back lot and wider stages, as it would attract films that typically go to Vancouver, Georgia or other locations where the tax credit is good and the stage spaces are bigger and plentiful,” he said.
A local resident, Jerry Embree, who was involved with the Maui Film Studios, is building stages around the U.S. using shipping containers, a much less expensive and faster build that is more environmentally friendly.
“I’ve had several discussions with Jerry about the possibility of him developing something like this on Maui, and I continue to push for this,” Bennett said.
Labor is another issue. Roughly 35 to 40 union members are registered and in good standing at the Maui County Film Office, but many of them commute to Oahu to work on the bigger films or on CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0” and “Magnum P.I.” series just to keep their hours to qualify for union benefits.
Also registered at the film office are equipment suppliers and production companies like Hana Productions, Paul Ehman Productions and Branscombe Richmond Productions, along with some veteran location managers and scouts.
Bennett said Maui County has had its share of commercials, print ad campaigns and smaller-scale shoots, as well as local movies “Maui” (also known as “Kuleana”) and “Aloha Surf Hotel.”
“We’ve hosted USA Network’s ‘Temptation Island’ for two seasons, and they are ready to come back for Season 3, once there’s a level of confidence and comfort with travel,” he said.
“We’ve entertained development of a couple TV series in the past, but the bottom line just doesn’t favor us unless it’s an island-specific project.”
Bennett said one thing that would help is speeding up the county’s film permitting process, which can now take up to two weeks.
Maui also needs to be more welcoming. Some people, he said, complain about the inconveniences the film industry can sometimes cause while on location.
“But the industry is clean, it can provide many jobs that pay very well and most importantly, it can keep our students in our community, as opposed to having to move to Los Angeles or New York to get valuable experience working in the industry.”
Bennett said some Maui schools have solid programs in media, film, television and commercials. Baldwin and Lahainaluna high schools have outstanding media programs, he said, while film director Brian Kohne (“Kuleana/ Maui”) runs a program at University of Hawaii Maui College.
There’s an unprecedented thirst for films and television right now, he said, generated by the desire for entertainment while people are hunkering down at home during the pandemic. With Hollywood looking to generate more content, Maui can take advantage, Bennett said, because Hawaii has kept its COVID-19 numbers down and manageable.
Hawaii State Film Commissioner Donne Dawson agreed, saying she expects a number of productions to start filming in the islands even before tourism restarts. She said production companies are interested in coming here to film because Hawaii has proved to be safe and relatively free of the coronavirus.
“Film is poised to be an incredible key player in the state’s economic recovery,” Dawson said. “It’s the perfect industry post-pandemic.”