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Shalhoub Feed the Fish
Wisconsin native Tony Shalhoub stars in the movie "Feed the Fish," which was filmed in Door County in 2009. The film was the last to receive funding through Wisconsin's short-lived film tax incentive program.

In the minds of many advocates, outgoing Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle prematurely rolled up the state's red carpet to the film industry in 2009.

That's the year Doyle slashed the state's lucrative film tax incentive program after it lured "Public Enemies," the Hollywood production starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, to shoot portions of the movie in Madison and 30 miles northeast in the small town of Columbus.

Locals flocked to the set to gawk at Hollywood stars and for a chance to stand in as extras.

The financial reality, it turned out, was not as glamorous.

The beginning of the end came when a state audit revealed "Public Enemies" received $4.6 million in incentives, only to generate $5 million in economic development, making it a near financial wash for the state.

Doyle responded to the public outcry at the time by drastically reducing the tax-incentive program, which offered tax credits and a 25 percent rebate on film expenses. The program now caps incentives at $500,000.

Some saw Doyle's move not only as an attack on the industry but as a swipe at Lt. Barbara Lawton, who had championed the program as chair of the Wisconsin Arts Board. Doyle rarely worked collaboratively with Lawton.

Now, with less than a month to go before incoming Gov. Scott Walker takes office, film industry advocates are mounting a campaign to make Wisconsin's incentive program attractive once again.

They're hosting a panel discussion Wednesday at The Orpheum Theatre to share information and take questions from the audience; the event also will serve as a screening for the last Wisconsin-made film to receive the state's film tax incentives. "Feed the Fish," which stars Green Bay native Tony Shalhoub, was filmed in Door County in February and March of 2009.

In a recent interview, Lawton says that Doyle didn't give the incentive program enough time to take hold. It is an opinion shared by a majority of the panelists scheduled to attend Wednesday's event.

"I think it was shortsighted, and I think it was a serious mistake," Lawton says. "It was only in place for one year, but it changed our national profile, in terms of the industry."

The incentive was approved by the Legislature in 2006, but it did not go into effect until 2008. In addition to "Public Enemies," the incentive is credited with attracting seven other major features to the state, 16 TV series and three national commercials.

Lawton, a Democrat, says she sees new opportunity with incoming Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Walker, who ran on a platform that promised job creation and pledged Wisconsin would again be "open for business," appears open to any incentive that brings money and jobs to the state.

"He has expressed a positive attitude toward it," says Lawton, who will continue to chair the Wisconsin Arts Board even after her term in office ends Jan. 3. "This is an area where Walker can begin with bipartisan support."

Walker did seem to express support for the program during the gubernatorial campaign.

"Gov. Doyle did not give the program a fair chance to take hold," he wrote in response to a candidate questionnaire from Milwaukee's convention and tourism bureau, VISIT Milwaukee. "Reasonable and sustainable incentives that emphasize putting Wisconsin people to work and growing this industry for the state should receive serious consideration."

Walker also said during the campaign he would consider allowing the state tourism department to play a role in marketing the state to the film industry. The department had overseen the state's film commission until Doyle eliminated it in 2005.

Film industry advocates hope these statements indicate Walker will be receptive to reviving the incentive program. But Walker is not committing just yet.

"Governor-elect Walker is still receiving budget briefings and has not yet outlined a plan for the current film tax incentive program," said Walker's press secretary, Cullen Werwie, in an email.

Nicholas Langholff, producer of "Feed the Fish," says the film qualified for $40,000 in tax incentives, although he is still waiting to receive the money.

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"Right now, there are no incentives for people to shoot here and no one is shooting here," Langholff says.

Langholff will be a panelist at the Orpheum event, as will George Tzougros, the executive director of the Wisconsin Arts Board.

 Tzougros says a top priority is eliminating the $500,000 cap and reinstating a more robust incentive program. He says allowing out-of-state companies to sell their tax credit to Wisconsin-based companies involved in the film industry is a wise way to attract even more business to the state. A tax credit means little to an out-of-state company, since they would not pay Wisconsin taxes.

"We are feeling pretty good about the change in the political climate," Tzougros says. "One of the myths (surrounding the issue) is this is all about Hollywood. But it's not. It's about creating jobs."

If you go:

What: A panel discussion on reviving Wisconsin's film tax incentive program and a screening of "Feed the Fish."

Where: Orpheum Theatre, 216 State St.

When: Panel discussion from 6 to 7 p.m.; social hour from 7 to 8 p.m.; screening of "Feed the Fish" from 8 to 9:30 p.m.; and a question-and-answer session with the Wisconsin-based crew from 9:30 to 9:45 p.m.

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