Film Tax Credits Offer Hope For Fame And Fortune


Across the state, well more than 1,000 people are vying for the chance to appear as extras in Cuba Gooding Jr.'s latest project, a film set in 1850 about the Underground Railroad — shooting soon in Connecticut.

An open casting call at the Bridgeport downtown public library this week drew so many hopefuls that the applications ran out, hours before the event ended. And everyone had a purpose for being there: students looking for excitement, jobless and even homeless people hoping for a paycheck, local professionals wanting in on the action, actors armed with 8-by-10 glossy photos -- everyone angling for a break.

Among them was Henry Timberlake, a Bridgeport resident who's looking to end up on the silver screen, for sure, but also had a deeper motivation. As editor-in-chief for the African American Historical Association of Fairfield County, Timberlake was asked to help wrangle possible extras — a task he did with gusto.

Timberlake is also talking up the real local history of the Underground Railroad with Production One Inc., the Westlake Village, Ca. company that's making the film. He'll show them the Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses on Main street in Bridgeport's South End, built by free African Americans in the 19th century.

Absolutely, he said, those houses were part of the house-to-house underground railroad network that was an escape route for slaves from the South.

"It's going to be a very educational movie, a big movie," said Timberlake, who wore a tie and jacket to the casting call.

His friend Omar Jones, an unemployed Bridgeport resident who's worked in TV production, thanked Timberlake for passing the word about this opportunity.

For this city that's seen better days, and for a state striving for a job-creating edge, this latest Hollywood feature film is exactly that — an opportunity. It was a chance for millions of dollars to filter down to the star-struck extras, restaurants, film-crew freelancers and hotels across the state.

It was a chance for residents such as Alisha Smith to bathe in the buzz. "It's kind of nerve-wracking a little bit," said Smith, coordinator in a local high school for a program aimed at getting 11th graders to strive for college, as she described posing for a casting photo. "In my youth I wanted to be an actress."

And it's a chance for the state itself to build its resume of big-time films, now, finally, too lengthy for buffs to rattle off all the names.

The attraction of movies here is backed by an ambitious state program that has given out $219 million in tax credits since 2007 — up to 30 percent of eligible expenses for film, TV and digital media production work done in Connecticut. That's been controversial, as critics say it's a lot to pay for work that's often done by carpetbaggers flitting in and out of the state.

Backers of the credit say it has generated $1.1 billion in production work, most of which wouldn't have happened at all. And every year, the state legislature has tightened the rules — notably, allowing credits only for companies that do at least some of their work at a qualified, permanent facility in Connecticut.

And anyway, feature films have the glitz but they aren't the heart of the program. "We would love to have as many feature films come here as possible," said George Norfleet, director of the state office of Film, Television and Digital Media. "But we recognize that television is our bread and butter, television and sports entertainment media, which is really growing jobs."

A breakdown of the credits by type is not avaialble, which is too bad. The bang for the buck is probably better for the TV and digital work, but Hollywood films bring some zook to the state, and that's something we lack.

Regardless, the hundreds of hopefuls in Bridgeport, and in Putnam on Friday (details below), are trying to grab an opportunity now, not develop an industry for the state.

Smith, the Bridgeport school employee wearing a crimson Harvard t-shirt, has the look, the magic. And casting director Judy Bouley, a diminutive 50-something with a huge presence even when hunched over her laptop, saw it right away.

Bouley shot Smith's tryout photo herself as two young male photographers worked with others nearby. Against a bare wall, she caressed Smith's baby face and neck, told her the highlights in her big hair would have to go and asked, "Have you got the spare time you would need to come and be with us?"

A quick couple of shots and it's done, same as all the rest. "Give me a kiss," Bouley, pronounced boo-LAY, says to Smith. "Thank you for all you do in the world."

Bouley keeps the shoots moving and manages the crush of information, all the while making sure of one thing: Her casting call is a positive experience for everyone.

"Fantastic," she said of the outpouring of people. "Great faces, great attitudes. Some people experienced in the movie business, some not....Brendan, take one of those pizzas to our library folks....I'm thrilled we're shooting in Connecticut."

Featured Stories

CTnow is using Facebook comments on stories. To comment on articles, sign into Facebook and enter your comment in the field below. Comments will appear in your Facebook News Feed unless you choose otherwise. To report spam or abuse, click the X next to the comment. For guidelines on commenting, click here.