Zoo Break Productions and Incentives for Greatness


All these people are committed to making episodic content in Washington State. And maybe in the Himalayas. Photo: Amy Lilard

Mischa Jacupcak is a Seattle filmmaker who is sick of hearing about tax incentives. If you’ve spent any amount of time in the local film community, you’ve heard this term a lot. Cities, states, provinces, and countries establish tax incentives to lure film and TV projects from Hollywood. The reason why we see so many shows shot in Vancouver and Portland is that those places offer favorable tax breaks for studios and production companies. This is why the film Battle in Seattle, a little-seen drama set during the 1999 World Trade Organization riots, was actually shot in Vancouver.

Seattle stands in the shadow of these regional film industries because, for whatever reason, our state legislature has never established a seriously competitive tax incentive package to attract Hollywood. As a result, the film industry in one of the most cinema-loving cities in the country has gutted it out as an indie player, occasionally producing talent like director Lynn Shelton and masterpiece productions like Twin Peaks.

Last week, Mischa hosted a gathering of local film professionals at Zoo Break Stage, the Burien soundstage she recently opened with her husband and collaborator Robyn Miller, to plant a flag for episodic content production. Zoo Break is a 24,000 square foot production facility occupying a former Staples store five minutes from SeaTac. I got to know Mischa and Robyn when we all had office space at CoMotion Labs, and I’ve been impressed by their ambition to make Seattle a hotbed of film and VR production.

At the meetup on Thursday, Mischa immediately set the tone, declaring that the term “tax incentives” was banned from the conversation to come. She pointed out that no other creative industry works this way. (For instance, when Robyn and his brother Rand set about making their groundbreaking video game Myst in Spokane in the nineties, they weren’t dependent on legislative largesse to render their absorbing fantasy world.) Let’s think about other kinds of incentives, Mischa said, and this made me sit up a bit more in my cold, fold-out chair.

A number of passionate film professionals introduced themselves and spoke of the challenges of making episodic content in Washington State. After these remarks, the meetup congregated by the green screen and broke into clumps of excited conversation, with actors, production designers, writers, and folks whose jobs I don’t entirely understand connecting and imagining a future for TV and web series in the Pacific Northwest.

I appreciated Mischa’s desire to think beyond tax incentives because it ultimately reflects a conviction that we should seize control of our own destiny. As I’ve mulled over what we discussed at that meetup the past couple days, I’ve begun to think there are two crucial attitudes or strategies that could help grow opportunities for professionals who wish to create episodic content in Washington state.

First, insist on masterpieces. Set the bar sky high for quality of content. Having lived over four decades in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve observed that one of the most insidious art killers is an attitude that what counts is the effort, that artists deserve points for trying, and it’s rude to champion artistic excellence. We lower our standards so that we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Screw that. The high points of art coming from the Pacific Northwest have always come when artists insisted that their work is just as deserving of a global audience as art created anywhere else.

Second, use the technology first. From audio production to VR to distribution, the technology that will drive the next wave of episodic content is being developed right here, right now. If there’s a new type of camera, microphone, or editing suite, get your hands on it as soon as possible and master it before anyone in LA. Refuse to play a 20th century game in which the object is to impress someone Hollywood. Conceive, make, and distribute right here, using the tools that are available.

If we were to combine these two ideas–high artistic standards and early adoption of technology–within the context of a generously collaborative creative community, I’m convinced that the Northwest can take a leadership role in telling the stories, in all new ways, that the world desperately needs.

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