Earlier this year, the state legislature revitalized the West Virginia Film Office, as well as the state’s film tax credit. The law went into effect in July and in just five months, the state’s film industry is already seeing a bump.
When Jeff Tinnell started in the film industry, you either worked in California or you didn’t work.
“I remember when I first started doing it and not living in [Los Angeles] and people said, ‘Where are you? What are you doing? Where’s the set? Where did you come from? You can’t do that here,’ type of thing,” Tinnell said.
Jeff and his filmmaker brother, Robert Tinnell, grew up in Rivesville in Marion County. They’ve since made their way back to West Virginia with their company Allegheny Image Factory, and things in the industry have changed.
“Now people could care less,” Jeff said. “You compound it with the pandemic where people work at home, they just want you to prove that you can do the work completed, and you have the skill level to be able to do it.”
Over the last 20 years, dozens of places outside of the country’s traditional film epicenters of California and New York have established burgeoning film industries of their own. Georgia, North Carolina and Texas now all boast robust film industries, and West Virginia is working to get in on the action.
In July, the legislature relaunched the state’s film office, moving it from the Department of Tourism to the Department of Economic Development, and restructuring the state’s film tax credit.
“The Film Industry Investment Act puts West Virginia in the national conversation,” Meghan Smith, manager for Business and Industrial Development at the Department of Economic Development, said. “It gives us the opportunity to reap the economic benefits of the film industry by having productions here.”
Smith also said the state’s new tax credit makes it competitive compared to neighboring states like Pennsylvania and Maryland.
“There is no per project cap, no credit cap,” she said. “When other states around us reach their credit cap for projects, they’re going to be looking at us to spend their money in West Virginia, because we don’t have that cap. So that’s one of the biggest and most exciting differences.”
While money is a driving force, the film office isn’t focusing exclusively on finances. Dave Lavender is the Apprenticeship Program Coordinator for the Department of Economic Development, but he also helps productions around the state find what they need. He said productions of any size can seek out help.
“West Virginia, it’s Appalachia. We’re full of storytellers,” Lavender said. “We get a lot of inquiries, and some small budget films who need help. We try to connect them to some of the funding possibilities, and some of the arts grants and things that are out there, even if they don’t qualify for the $50,000 minimum spend.”
In what has suddenly become a crowded market for filmmakers and production companies to choose where to base their productions, West Virginia distinguishes itself with the variety of filming locations packed into a relatively small space.
“We have places where you would really want to make a film,” Lavender said. “We got Civil War battlefields and coal towns and diverse cities and landscapes and places like the Palace of Gold and Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.”
It’s still early days for the film industry in West Virginia. The office hasn’t compiled data on how many productions have come into the state, or how much revenue they’ve produced. Things are still being built out, and Lavender said the film office is always looking for more locations. One of the pieces still growing to fit the state’s filmmaking puzzle is a skilled workforce. Lavender said the film office is working on that, too.
“We have a service, a professional directory up there for crew members, and also for support services,” he said. “It takes a village, a huge village, to make a film. Support services are really everything.”
That means everything from drivers to painters, hair and makeup specialists and caterers. It also means the core filmmaking skill set of actors and video producers, who Lavender said are here already, but typically go out of state to work.
“We do have a lot of actors here, we do have a lot of tons of video production companies,” he said. “We’re hoping to have enough creative projects here where they can stay home and work in state.”
The Tinnells have been filming commercials, TV and movie projects in West Virginia now for 15 years and have already noticed a difference in the months since the new film office opened.
“We’ve done features here, we’ve done some television work here, we’ve done a lot of commercial work here,” Jeff said. “What was great about the last six months was the excitement that people had to want to get behind it.”
The goal for the Tinnells and their Allegheny Image Factory is to produce six to eight projects each year. In the past six months, they managed three, including two Lifetime movies based on the mystery novels of Ann Rule. Jeff’s brother, Robert, who filmed his 2019 holiday feature “Feast of the Seven Fishes” in Marion County, said seeing film productions is starting to get a little more common in West Virginia.
“When I did ‘Seven Fishes,’ that was really surreal and cool,” he said. “Now I’m getting sort of used to it, to driving through Fairmont going, ‘Oh, look, there’s a whole bunch of big lights and about 70 people standing around making a movie.’ It’s a really good feeling and I’m proud.”