Project Milwaukee: Challenges In Film Innovation

Mar 19, 2016

In our Project Milwaukee: Innovation: How Do We Compete? series, we’ve been exploring the challenges that innovation faces in Wisconsin. 

RDI Stages turned one of their empty World War II warehouses into the largest sound stage offered in the region for film and commercial use.
Credit rdimage.com/rdistages

In 2007, film industry supporters and filmmakers were able to take advantage of a tax credit program designed to lure filmmakers to the state of Wisconsin. The program offered tax credits of 25 percent for production spending and 15 percent for infrastructure.

That quickly attracted higher profile movies to Wisconsin like Public Enemies, which starred Johnny Depp.

However, in 2009, Governor Jim Doyle limited the credits and in 2013 the tax incentives were removed completely from the state budget. With surrounding states still offering tax breaks, it’s no longer financially logical for movie makers to come here.

One Milwaukee company that experienced first-hand the benefits and the challenges of innovation is RD Image. Janine Sijan Rozina and Tom Davenport founded the company in 2005. What started as a commercial photography studio expanded to include the largest sound stage in Wisconsin, RDI Stages. The firm also supplies other services to support the film industry.

Sijan Rozina and Davenport decided to become entrepreneurs together after they had gained a loyal following after working for different production companies - a move that was of course a risk. However, without risk there is no innovation, says Sijan Rozina.

"It's always a leap of faith," she says. "If you're going to wait for all decisions in your life until things are perfect, you're going to wait a long time."

"When it came to the film incentives and developing RDI Stages that was very much driven by just the entire lack of that sort of thing in the state," explains Davenport. "When we had the opportunity, we had a building that could suffice for what film makers would need - we jumped on it right away."

Their initiative proved to be successful, garnering great interest from producers who were tired of filming in Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver.

"I think that there were probably naysayers within the state that didn't believe that we could in fact lure projects in," says Sijan Rozina. "And I can tell you as being that first recipient of the phone call for projects, indeed it was happening."

Filmmaker and UW-Madison graduate Michael Mann on location in Columbus, Wisconsin. His film Public Enemies was shot in Columbus, Oshkosh, Beaver Dam and Milwaukee among other locations.
Credit Peter Mountain / Universal Pictures

She also notes that people often doubt the impact greater film industries have in the state because they do not see it as a sustainable business. However, Sijan Rozina says the opposite is true according to their experience.

"(The film industry) is much like contractors building homes," she explains. "They are permanent jobs, they just changes locations from time to time and set up a new project."

The film industry is not only profitable and long-term, but, Sijan Rozina says, is also "clean, green, manufacturing." Contrary to the belief that Wisconsin tax payers would suffer, she adds, the film companies only received a tax incentive if they came to the state and spent the money. This was done through location improvements such as new roads and building restoration - all of which need local skilled workers.

Directors such as Emmy-winning Charles McDougall of Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City, The Office, and even the Cohen brothers visited Milwaukee and wanted to fulfill their visions in Wisconsin.

After the tax incentives were taken away, projects that were already scouted such as The Good Wife on CBS and Revolutionary Road, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DeCaprio, were taken elsewhere.

Janine Sijan Rozina personally scouted Ravenswood, Wauwatosa to be the neighborhood location for the film "Revolutionary Road."
Credit youtube.com

"They're tired of shooting in L.A. and having palm trees in the background and hoping to have that look like the Midwest - it's not going to look like that.  So they want to come," says Sijan Rozina. "Those of us who live here can't even imagine that somebody would want to come to our little city, but they did."

While their commercial photography business continues to be successful, Davenport would love to see Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin return to being wanted locations for film.

"The problem with our innovation now is we're training these people and they're going some place else. Everybody's picking up roots because there are no jobs here," he says.

If an environment for innovation is embraced by locals and state officials with the return of the film tax incentives, Davenport believes that the existing support system will overflow and show real change in Milwaukee.

"We have a proud heritage in Wisconsin as far as innovation is concerned," he says. "I think that we just need to see that fostered, nurtured a little bit more to see that people that do have new ideas have a place that they can exercise those ideas."