Innovation Labs–An Opportunity For Indie Filmmakers

I don’t normally shill for stuff; I am a douchebag, after all. But as much as I lampoon the independent film culture in all its glorious, infantile ridiculousness, I actually believe very strongly in the value of film as an art form, a cultural flagpole, and a business enterprise that can benefit workers in our state.

I help run a thing called the Seattle Webseries Meetup with some friends of mine. Last week we had Amy Lillard from the Washington Film Works speak and answer questions about the new tax incentives being offered to filmmakers. Amy is a firecracker, and she is bound and determined to develop not just the industry of filmmaking in our state, but emerging technologies, like web based content, and even transmedia storytelling.

Washington Film Works is a private, non-profit organization that manages Washington’s film and production incentive programs. If you are not familiar with the incentive program, you need get it figured out real quick. This is a primary way that an independent filmmaker can lubricate the financial gears of his/her project. But the funding is limited. It’s not exactly first come, first served, but better to be in the front of the line than the back.

Amy had a few opening comments and then answered questions from the audience. Here is a paraphrase of one of her statements:

“Our mission is to get people in the film industry back to work. We have 3.5 million in funding available, so we are never going to be like Michigan, with 40 million, or even Louisiana. But we do not want to be Louisiana or Michigan. We want to be the digital storytelling Mecca of the world. A digital Hollywood, if you will.”

I dig this chick. I can get behind this kind of vision.

I’ve included in this post the notes I took from the meeting, but I would strongly suggest visiting the Film Works website to get a fuller understanding of the Innovation Labs program, as well as the Standard Program.

Innovation Labs

Standard Program

Additionally, Amy gave out her email at the meeting and invited people to contact her if they had questions. Amy’s email: amy@washingtonfilmworks.org.

Points and questions from the meeting in approximately the order they were discussed:


Film Works Innovation Lab.

  • The award process is divided into two sections, a traditional film cycle, and an innovation cycle for emerging technologies like webseries.
  • 350,000/year for emerging technologies
  • For projects with budgets of 50 -500 thousand dollars
  • Based on merit. Board decides the merit of a particular project. Jury determines the portion awarded to any one project.
  • The innovation lab is intended to help the evolution of the creative career of a filmmaker.
  • Selection by the jury for the award is a figurative stamp of approval. Film Works will have vetted the project and stand behind it to other investors. Amy will personally advocate for an awarded project.
  • There is a party on 12-12-12 for the current film cycle recipients.
  • The goal of the innovation cycle is for Seattle to become a digital Hollywood.
  • The point of Innovation Labs is to discover how we can use existing and emerging technology resources to tell stories.
  • Think of the innovation cycle as a kind of incubation fund for new technologies.
  • The innovation cycle is still grounded in creating work for the film industry.
  • Concentration on web distribution, webseries, etc.
  • Transmedia is not the core of the focus this year, but it may come more to the forefront soon.
  • Phone apps are a good example of an innovation that garners the interest of the board.
  • The innovation lab is a work in progress, it is evolving organically. Amy: We will not get it right the first time. Be patient, we will learn with you and from you.

Changes to legislation:

  • Changed definition of motion picture.
    • Includes digitally created content.
    • Episodic content has been bumped a to 35% return.
      • Episodic is the financial core of the film industry.
      • Budget upped to 3.5 mil
      • Return for commercials dropped to 15%.
      • Nonresident production.
        • Can access the incentives, but:
        • Use of WA labor is encouraged
          • 85% must be WA residents.
          • Must physically be on the ground in WA
          • No above the line labor: Directors, etc.
          • Non-residents cannot make more than $50,000.

The film works program only sees the film productions that come through its office. That is only a fraction of the film that is actually going on in the state

  • They need data
  • This data will help WFW tell the story of filmmakers to legislators.
  • 99% of filmmakers do not self-identify as filmmakers on state tax and business documents. Therefore, the state has no idea just how many people are working in the film industry. They rightly think that the number is much, much lower than it really is, and so give less weight to filmmaking labor concerns.



Why Innovation Lab?

  • We are asking: how is storytelling evolving?
  • We want to be at the forefront of emerging technologies.
  • We want filmmakers themselves to help us determine the future of the film industry in this state.

What is transmedia?

  • Telling your story across multiple platforms.
  • Not just marketing and advertising.
    • There is no shame in being involved in marketing
    • Filmmakers who shy away from marketing are doing themselves a disservice by depriving themselves of opportunities to learn and make money.
    • The so-called need for artistic integrity is bull***t. Making money is necessary and does not sully the artistic integrity of an artist or project. Filmmaking is a business. And everyone wants to make money doing something they love. So stop being a baby about it and learn the business of making film.

Are you giving attention to ARG’s? (Alternate Reality Games)

  • Video games do not qualify.
    • Games are usually more about working on a computer, not traditional filmmaking jobs.
    • That probably will change soon.
    • Can a parallel alternate reality experience qualify?
      • Does it employ actors and other film professionals?
      • We are interested in keeping film professionals working.
      • Any portion of an ARG that is film related content can qualify.
      • The awards are board reviewed and jury awarded. It will be up to them to decide. They are very much dedicated to keeping film making professionals working.

Can the webseries portion of transmedia qualify?

  • Yes.

How do we get to 10 million of available funding?

  • The amount available has actually increased year after year. We can get there.
  • Everyone in this room needs to reach out to the legislators. Tell them that you work in film. Do it in the off-session. Be consistent. Don’t just do it in an emergency.
  • Oct 3 the legislative candidates are invited to the Office of Film + Music happy hour. Be there and tell them to give you more funding.

Can we re-structure the Office of Film + Music happy hours so it doesn’t seem like trying to find a date at a bar?

  • The structure has recently been put in place with featured speakers and events, and it has improved that atmosphere.
  • The Dilettante Douchebag goes there specifically to find dates, so he would be sad if that atmosphere went away entirely.

How does a grass roots production apply for the innovation cycle money?

  • Do not have to be fully funded to apply, which is huge.
  • You will have a stamp of approval, so that you can go out and get more money.
  • It is rigorous. Interviews, juries, boards, etc.
  • You will have to provide plans for budget, marketing, distribution, etc.
  • However, FIlm Works will help you through the entire process.
  • When you get done with the application process you will be a better filmmaker you will have a product package you can actually sell.

If I am a transmedia producer with both traditional and nontraditional parts, how do I apply for the incentive?

  • What is your distribution platform? Is it a video game? Then you may not qualify.
  • Whatever the bulk of content lies will determine which cycle it goes to, for example whether it is primarily a film or a webseries.
  • If you have a project that is 99% people behind a computer, then the board will not likely gravitate toward it. They are still favoring traditional film jobs.

How are people who work behind a computer in a production classified?

  • The reality is that there are many more people behind the computer in filmmaking, and it will continue to be more so.
  • In the future, the incentive will almost certainly consider people like that filmmaking labor.
  • New York has just upped post production incentives to 30%.
  • Right now the question is: how does the board view them? They still tend to have a more traditional view of filmmaking jobs: director, producer, costume designer, gaffer, makeup artist, Camera operator, etc.
    • For example, are computer animators considered filmmakers?
      • If a film is entirely animated, then the board might consider them for the Innovation Labs incentive.

My take on the deal

It is clear from the discussion that the Washington State film incentive is not designed to just bring in big productions from Hollywood. It is designed to cultivate and support Washington film. What stands out to me are the opportunities available for low budget independent filmmakers and webseries creators. Did you catch this point?

 A project does not have to have its funding in place to apply for the incentives.

That’s huge. Way huge. As was pointed out by an attendee who works closely with investors in independent films, if you have an initial element of funding in place you are much more likely to be able to get additional funding.

Granted, the Film Works board and juries will need a business and marketing plan from you, as well as a great deal of additional documentation. So you can’t just show up with a synopsis and get the keys of the kingdom. You’ve got a lot of work to do to convince them that your project is worth the investment. But if you can demonstrate to them that you have a viable, desirable product, they will not only help you through their process, but when you have been accepted, they will advocate for you to investors. You will have their stamp of approval, as it were. And that is a massive advantage in producing your film.

My advice is to become very familiar with the incentive program through Film Works and get to know Amy Lillard personally. They are doing great things for Washington filmmakers over at Film Works. It’s time for all of us to get fully on board and not just support this legislation, but personally benefit from it.


  1. Brian Sutherland

    Awesome Ben. You guys keep up the good work

  2. Pingback: Hobbyist Is Not a Four Letter Word. | dilettante douchebag

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