Hollywood. Bollywood. Denali-wood?

by joey  |   

B.A. '95, Journalism and Public Communications Hometown: Anchorage, AK Fun Fact: Through his job, he's had the pleasure of meeting New Zealand-based animatronic whale operators.

I AM UAA: Dave Worrell

I AM UAA: Dave Worrell. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

The Cicelys and Mysterys that dot the fictional Alaska landscape aren't actually Alaskan at all. Emmy-winning Northern Exposure filmed in Washington state. The ponds of Mystery, Alaska were far south in Alberta. And let's not address the scandalous boondoggle of 2009's The Proposal, the Sitka-set rom-com filmed largely on the capes of Massachusetts.

Things have changed, though. Alaska's landscape, population and history are all rich with story-telling potential, so it only makes sense these Alaska tales be filmed here as well. In 2008, the state legislature approved a new initiative-the Film Production Incentive Program-to convince Hollywood to pack their parkas and establish a film industry on the Last Frontier.

As an economic development specialist, Dave Worrell serves as the vital link between Hollywood and Anchorage. He spends his days on the 17th floor office of the Atwood Building, taking in vast views of the city every time he swivels his chair. To the east are the Chugach Mountains, where a mountaineering production recently filmed in place of the Himalayas. To the west is the Port of Anchorage, where Big Miracle built sets to match the Arctic Ocean.

Dave works in Alaska's Division of Economic Development so, although he's in the movie business, his life is far from red carpet glamour. "Unfortunately I work with the accountants and the producers. I don't ever get to hang out with the famous people," he joked.

Alaska's film program originally petered out in the mid-1990s, but was reestablished in 2008 after legislation in Juneau created a new tax incentive. "That's really the carrot that we use to encourage them to come to Alaska," Dave said. Simply put, Dave's convinces producers Alaska is the right place to film their story.

Northern Exposure: Bringing Alaska to the world

Film crews have escaped from Los Angeles for the past several decades. Vancouver was the first city to put a major dent in Hollywood's reputation, initiating bold tax incentives to lure producers across the northern border. The billion-dollar industry earned Vancouver the industry nickname "Hollywood North" and the bay-facing city has stood in for American destinations from Maine (Once Upon a Time) to Kansas (Smallville) to everywhere else (five seasons of The X-Files).

An expansive state like Alaska could readily fill those destinations, and keep it in-country. "When I go to the locations trade show down in L.A., I'm meeting with producers who may not have a project for several years, but we're trying to open them up to the idea that Alaska is open for business," Dave explained. "We have a great place to make movies-it's not all igloos and glaciers and moose." In his eyes, Palmer's farm community could be Any Town, America and Southeast Alaska is an able stand-in for the East Coast. And his vision is paying off; the upcoming 2015 movie Sugar Mountain-written for New Zealand-was completely retooled after the director visited Alaska and decided to flip filming to Seward.

In the wake of Vancouver's success, nearly every state launched film incentive programs. With an entrenched film industry in a similar city, Alaska had to devise an aggressive incentive to compete not just with Vancouver, but with the whole world.

"To be competitive against British Columbia and Iceland and New Zealand-some of the jurisdictions we compete directly with-we needed to have a competitive incentive program," Dave said. The state wrote up a generous policy netting productions in Alaska a base credit of 30 percent. Additional tax credits are provided on wages paid to Alaskans. Savings increase further if the production shoots in a rural location, and further still if it's off-season between October and March. All these efforts add up to a potential 58 percent credit, and all seek to maximize the benefit in seasons and cities that need it most.

"It's a big deal in small town Alaska," Dave said of the economic stimulus. "It's even a pretty big deal here in Anchorage." For example, when Big Miracle descended on the city from September to November, they rented a combined total of 10,000 rooms at the Hotel Captain Cook during production. "That's room attendance, that's people in the restaurants, that's a lot of additional work in the off-season," Dave noted.

The John Cusacks and Emile Hirschs of the world may be in Alaska only a month or two, but the impact of filming resonates. Pre-production crews land in Anchorage anywhere from three to nine months before shooting, and the team balloons when filming begins. A major picture like Big Miracle may have around 350 people on its payroll, and that's not counting the extras paid to brush elbows with the likes of Jon Krasinski for a day or two.

Dave, therefore, is involved long before cameras roll, following projects between a producer's initial phone call and the film's final cut. He first met Frozen Ground's director in 2009, two years before filming began. And WildLike-the next Alaska Grown film-shot across the state in summer 2012 but just premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival last week.

"It's not just the obvious people, the grips and the gaffers and those kinds of folks, who benefit from this," Dave explained. "It really does reverberate through the economy." He pointed out a few examples from Big Miracle, like the construction crew who built the set, and the engineering company hired to laser-map it. "There was a lot of computer animation... so they hired an Alaska construction and engineering company to come in with a laser mapping system to map it down to the inch so that the whales didn't overlap Drew Barrymore and Ted Danson when they put the whole thing together," Dave noted.

Future films and rising tides

Although film production brings a jolt of cash to the frontier, Dave is most excited about long-term development. "One of the things that excites me about this program [is] we're building the infrastructure and we're building the crew base, and as the industry builds we'll have the opportunity for Alaskans to really start telling Alaska stories."

"We have such amazing history," he continued, "the Soapy Smith and the gold rush or the oil boom of the '70s. There are a lot of great stories that are just waiting to be told, and that's what excites me about this-we're building the infrastructure that will allow those stories to be told by Alaskans."

A promising sign of the potential homegrown film scene is On the Ice-an Iñupiaq/English-language movie filmed entirely in Barrow. The movie cleaned up on the 2011 film festival circuit, taking home top awards in Berlin, Seattle and Woodstock. Most noteworthy, though-the movie was written and directed by a native son of the North Slope, Barrow-born Andrew Okpeaha MacLean.

"That was one that particularly excited me, because here is an Alaskan filmmaker shooting a film in Barrow using essentially the entire town," Dave noted. "And it was a really interesting film."

To keep building the momentum, Dave spends his time cajoling Hollywood producers to head to the frontier. "I go to L.A. and to trade shows a couple times a year and kind of prime the pump so people are familiar with Alaska," he explained. "Once they've got the economics to work, they'll rewrite a script to fit Alaska if they need to."

Film production-in Dave's eyes-is already taking root in the city, citing last weekend's 48-hour film festival, now in its fifth year. "People are coming up with great ideas and great shorts, they're building their skill sets and we're going to see those great Alaska stories start to be told by Alaskans."

What's on the horizon? Perhaps Hindi dance numbers on Knik Glacier? "We certainly haven't had one yet, but I've talked to several Bollywood producers," Dave remarked.

When asked for his favorite filming locations in Alaska, Dave wavers. "It's like asking 'who's your favorite child?'" he laughed, before admitting it would be fun to see James Bond blow up Whittier's crumbling Buckner Building some day.

Journalism roots

Although technically an economic developer, Dave stays connected to his journalism roots through the JPC advisory board. He's still a passionate storyteller at heart, but certainly thankful for the broad UAA education that prepared him for today.

"I would tell students at UAA that those classes outside their major-those general education requirements and electives-end up being, in some instances, as important as classes in their major.

"I can't tell you how many times I've used those classes," he continued. "I'm not mathematically inclined, but I'm using statistics all the time. Or when talking to directors, I'm often using the vocabulary I learned in art history. So take advantage of the full spectrum the university offers, because we have such a great university.

"University of Alaska is a great resource for the community and I'm proud to be a UAA alumnus."

Want to watch the movies and shows mentioned above? Stop by the UAA/APU Consortium Library's Alaskana Collection to rent dozens of Alaska-filmed and Alaska-set DVDs.

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

Creative Commons License "Hollywood. Bollywood. Denali-wood?" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.