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Virginia is looking for ways to better compete in the booming film industry.

The two have been working with Chris Williams and Rob Smith of Five Star for about two years on the project, getting a crew together, establishing a budget (a modest $800,000) and finishing all the other preproduction work that goes into such a project. They even scouted what they think is the perfect location, Windy Hill Golf and Sports Complex in Midlothian, which they believe has the only lighted course in Virginia. "We saw it for the first time about a year ago," Buker says, "and took it as an omen. It's the spookiest damn thing you ever saw."

"Slice" is ready to tee off. There's just one element missing, but it's a big one: the money. "We're still trying to shore up the finances," Buker says.

"Slice" needs investors. But finding people willing to put money into an independent film is more difficult in a conservative state like Virginia, Buker says. What's more, some states competing with Virginia for movies give lavish tax incentives to film productions over the $250,000 mark. Virginia, which gets two or three large productions per year, does not.

Buker says incentives common in other states would help his project. Although states primarily use incentives to lure productions, Buker and his partners believe they could be used to help entice investors to projects like theirs and ease conservative fears of putting money into zombies.

With film companies taking more and more of their business outside California, incentives are a becoming a big part of state ploys to woo productions, both commercial and feature. They are prominently featured in most state film office Web sites, like the Virginia Film Office's, which lists its tax incentives at least twice. Incentives have helped many states, including North Carolina, Maryland, Louisiana (before Katrina) and recently Massachusetts, establish themselves as players outside of New York and California, drawing big bucks from productions ranging from Super Bowl commercials to major films.

But Virginia falls short compared to its competitors. Most states, such as North Carolina, offer broad tax breaks on in-state spending available for goods, services and labor. Virginia offers a comparatively paltry break on sales and use taxes.

The state is playing catch-up, says Becky Beckstoffer, marketing manager at the Virginia Film Office. "We need [better tax incentives] to compete with neighboring states," she says. "We're losing films all the time because we don't have them. It's just critical. It's the big deal."

"If you don't have them, you're really behind the eight ball," says Terry Stroud, president of the Virginia Production Alliance. "You can't compete." The non-profit VPA is spearheading a plan to improve Virginia's lie in the national production game.

Stroud says the plan is to get the General Assembly, which convenes Jan. 11, to fund the Governor's Motion Picture Opportunity Fund, which was established several years ago but has no funds.

The big state competitors, Stroud says, have an annual budget of between $2 million and $10 million for incentives. If the scenario is right, he says — depending on the "tone" of the Assembly — he'd like legislators to approve between $4 million and $8 million.

"We want a figure large enough to appeal to filmmakers," Stroud says. If the dollar figure is lower, he hopes the good reputation of the film office along with Virginia's unique locations and other incentives will together present a better package than what's been available.

As for the state's return on investment, Stroud says it doesn't get much better than film production. That's why Stroud and the VPA are scrambling to get these incentives out there. He believes every dollar Virginia spent would be an investment with both immediate and long-term returns in tourism, tax revenues, sales and many other areas.

They used to say everyone wants to be in the movies. Now it's every state. And it's easy to see why, Stroud says. It's less fuss for the buck. States don't have to deal with the big headaches that big industries bring in terms of infrastructure, zoning and pollution, for example. "They come in here," Stroud says, "turn the spigot on, money flies, and then they're gone."

So if the guys behind "Slice" can hold off a little while, they might just get their wish. And if not, Slice president Buker says that perhaps the movie — carefully planned to be profitable, he adds — will help show the value in state film investment.

"We really are trying to help the growing film industry here," Buker says. "If we can show we can make this film and make it profitable, and we will, we think we can get those incentives passed." S


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