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Lights, Camera, Action: The Film Business is in the Spotlight

Hawai‘i’s film commissioner discusses industry’s impact & future.

October 17, 2013
Susan Halas - Contributing Writer ( , Maui Weekly

"Maui Nui's film industry is poised for amazing things, and I'm proud to be a part of it," said Hawai'i Film Commissioner Donne Dawson.

The state government's film liaison was on Maui on Tuesday, Oct. 8, to give an update on the impact of motion picture, video and digital production statewide with special reference to growth of the industry on Maui. She spoke to an audience of about 100 at a dinner meeting of the Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce at the Maui Tropical Plantation in Waikapu.

Dawson said the office was created in 1978, and noted that she has been on the job since 2001. Her three-person team currently processes some 2,000 permits per year and fields an estimated 3,500 inquiries. As for what she does, "I spend 85 percent of my time putting out fires."

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Hawai‘i State Film Commissioner Donne Dawson was on Maui Oct. 8 to address the Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce. Her talk covered an update on the industry statewide and recent developments on Maui.

On the economic front, Dawson said, Hawai'i has tripled its annual production revenue since she took over the helm. Presently, she estimates motion pictures and related fields are a "$300 million-a-year industry for the state. Since Act 88 was implemented in 2006, it has generated $1.2 billion in direct expenditures and nearly $2 billion in overall economic activity statewide."

Act 88 granted tax credits to production work using Hawai'i as a location. Those credits, which were previously pegged at 15 percent for O'ahu and 20 percent for the Neighbor Islands, were recently bumped up in the state Legislature by 5 percent. They now stand at 20 percent for O'ahu and 25 percent for the rest of the state.

To receive those benefits, a production needs to meet certain criteria, including a minimum budget of $200,000. A variety of ventures can qualify. These include feature films, independent productions, commercials--even some products made for the Internet are eligible, she said.

Dawson explained the needs for incentives, saying that motion picture companies look at sites around the world and film where the finances make the most sense.

"It's global," she said. "The tax incentives are needed to make us competitive."

She also noted that the cap on these credits has also recently been raised as well. These incentives came about through actions at the Legislature.

"We're lucky to have what we have, "she said, adding, "It's not just important to make sure they come, but to make sure they come back. The cold hard truth is there is always another choice."

She frequently she mentioned many other locations, such as South Africa, Puerto Rico and Australia, that have more dollars to spend on marketing and compete for the same productions as Hawai'i.

As for the local scene, she observed, "Maui needs to pay attention to its strengths," which she attributed to four unique and diverse locations: Maui, Lana'i, Molokai and Kaho'olawe.

She also observed that for the first time, Maui has an existing film production facility in the form of the recently opened Maui Film Studios, and with it will come opportunities for local employment and training.

Though Maui is the first of the Neighbor Islands to have its own studio, she also mentioned that there will soon be one in Kona.

Her advice to Mauians was, "Stay in touch with the political process" and "be cautious about development."

She stressed that it was of special importance to value Hawai'i's resources and "tremendous natural beauty" and not allow them to be overrun, downgraded or abused.

"Once we lose sight of that," she said, "there's always another choice."

She also reminded her listeners that the film business is "built on relationships--word- of-mouth is important. One success brings the next success, but one unsuccessful project will hurt. They all talk to each other."

In that vein, she fielded a question from the audience about Hollywood heavy-hitter Ryan Kavanaugh, who has a part time home on the Valley Isle and has served as chair of one of Mayor Alan Arakawa's fundraising events, and is playing an outsized role in Maui's future. The question from the floor asked if he had received preferential treatment?

"My job is to be fair and open to all," Dawson replied, "and not take sides." But she also indicated that giving too much weight to the rumors and allegations might in the end hurt more than it would help.

"What is in the best interest of the industry is to set personalities aside and focus on the business at hand rather than engage in finger pointing," she said. "If we give it too much attention, it will hurt us in the end."

Dawson commended former Maui Film Commissioner Harry Donenfeld, who was in the audience, for his efforts on behalf of Maui, and noted that his job is presently vacant. She urged Mauians with the qualifications to apply for the vacancy by contacting the county Office of Economic Development.

Notable by their absence were representatives from the Arakawa administration.

Additionally, she praised Barry Rivers, also in the audience, for his Wailea Film Festival "that put Maui on the map and brings the top producers to our door."

Summing it up, she said, "It's time to take it to a different level. Maui's ready. What exists here doesn't exist elsewhere, and the 25 percent tax credit on everything both above and below the line should be a game changer."

Taking the longer view, she observed, "The industry is not new in Hawai'i. This year, the state is celebrating the 100th anniversary of film in the islands. We've come a long way, and it hasn't always been pretty."

According to Dawson, Hawai'i in general and native Hawaiians in particular, "have often been "misrepresented, misunderstood and stereotyped."

"I believe that's changing, but it's important to pay attention to how we're shown through film and TV," Dawson said. "We try to do it through education and guidance, to make those who do production here understand why we are not like any other. When it comes to Hawai'i's culture and heritage, we are not to be messed with, but we try to do it nicely."

At the conclusion of her remarks, she took numerous questions from the audience. These included subjects like how more job opportunities could be created, what kinds of internships and training are available now and will be offered in the future, how international productions can make use of Hawai'i and process their visas rapidly and many more.

In the end, she once again stressed the need for cultural sensitivity: "We want you to come," she said, referring to outside productions coming to Hawai'i, "but you need to understand who we are."

Comprehensive information about Hawai'i's film industry, including permitting and a statewide directory, is available online at



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