Interview with South Carolina Film Commissioner, Jeff Monks

Nowadays competition is fierce among states, regions, and countries vying for production dollars. Jeff Monks is South Carolina State Film Commissioner. I spoke with the commissioner on January 12, 2006 via phone.

Alexa O'Brien

Why do states like South Carolina compete for production dollars?

Jeff Monks

First, I can tell you why South Carolina does. It's a knowledge-based industry. You know it's a beautiful blend of the technical meeting the creative, and it draws from so many different pools of talent in South Carolina. It is what our governor and our legislature are after: build a knowledge-based industry in South Carolina. This industry fits beautifully into that. Then you get into things like, above average wages. It's a clean industry. It can easily have come to a small community as to a large community, and the cost of recruiting compared to recruiting a manufacturer for example is significantly less. When we recruit a manufacturer, you are also looking at developing infrastructure. You have to build roads; you have to improve your sewer system. What's the effect upon your schools? Whereas this industry doesn't have that. So, the recruiting costs are significantly less. Finally, it promotes tourism, as films and television shot in South Carolina are shown around the world.

Alexa O'Brien

What kind of production related organizations do you or your office belong to?

Jeff Monks

Principally, the Association of Film Commissioner's International and then we deal with the Producer's Guild and the Director's Guild and I.A.T.S.E. and all the rest. For a film commission there is only one organization, and it's the AFCI.

Alexa O'Brien

What benefit do you get being a part of that organization?

Jeff Monks

It's a very unusual organization. Here you have competitors from around the world that you can call up and say, "Hey, I have never been in this situation before. So, you have a sounding board. You have a concerted and organized marketing effort by all the film commissions to the industry. Also it's a reference check in a way, when you have a company coming in or individuals within a production company coming in, and you know they filmed in, choose one, any location; you can call them up and say, "What has been your experience et cetera..."

Alexa O'Brien

What is your particular organization's short term and long term vision for production in South Carolina look like? Do you have a particular strategy? What is it?

Jeff Monks

First and foremost, we have to get back on the horse. South Carolina had a consistent production presence through 2000. We saw foreign and other incentives kick in at that point and watched our revenues drop. So, first and foremost, we need to rebuild the industry coming into the state. Secondly, in the longer term there are a couple of steps in the three and the five year process - continuing to build our crew and our supplier base - not only in numbers but also in quality and experience. Develop the infrastructure, the production facilities, postproduction facilities to help capture more of those dollars, and you know ultimately to develop product within South Carolina that is distributed nationally or internationally.

Alexa O'Brien

Every state, region, and country seems to be vying for production dollars. For many states, incentives are a means to that end. Is South Carolina mainly interested in building an infrastructure for a below-the-line service base reliant on heavy capital investment? Then you require a virtuous cycle of production dollars, if those entities are to remain solvent. Do you have other stimulus goals that might fall under information technology and the entertainment industry? I am thinking about game design and digital production arts, like special effects houses et cetera.

Jeff Monks

I don't think you can separate them. They are intertwined. Number one: stabilize and build upon what we have on the service side of the equation. It's a combination of working with our schools, with the organizations that have sprung up around the state, like the Charleston Digital Corridor. They all recognize and see the value of the industry. It's a process, and it's a longer term process than simply getting back on the horse and bringing in more production.

Alexa O'Brien

What specifically is South Carolina doing to attract production dollars?

Jeff Monks

There are the incentives and there are the three different components of the incentives: One is the recruiting. One is building infrastructure. One is a grants program. In addition, we are working with our colleges, universities, and technical colleges that have film or digital production areas. In conjunction with this grants process that will be introduced this year, we will help them fund production of media whether it's digital or traditional. The goal is for the schools to collaborate with professionals in the industry. What we want to do is get our professionals to elevate their experience and quality as they produce these projects in collaboration with the schools and thereby elevate the schools experience by creating job ready students.

Alexa O'Brien

What does that look like?

Jeff Monks

One of the goals is to create product. Right now, many of our schools have classes but do not have the money to actually create product. So, we have a lot of book knowledge and not a lot of hands on practical experience. We've have professionals - maybe they've been a grip for five years and now they want to be a Key Grip, or they want to become a Gaffer. This is a way for them to go ahead and do that - to put that on their resume. Ultimately it is building that crew base with job ready students who can walk out the door and say, "Yeah I know what a set looks like. Yeah, we've been through that process."

Alexa O'Brien

What kinds of product would be produced in this collaboration between individuals who have minimum to higher production experience working as grips or electrics or maybe even cameramen?

Jeff Monks

Or digital composers...

Alexa O'Brien

What kind of product would this collaboration, obviously you don't know for certain right now, but give me an example of what kinds of product could be produced by this kind of collaboration?

Jeff Monks

Initially, it's probably going to be short dramatic pieces. We want to be able to not only turn out product that we can help promote around the country - not only promote South Carolina, but what are schools are doing, and what are professionals are doing.

Alexa O'Brien

So, they would be advertisements for the local film industry?

Jeff Monks

Yes. Ultimately, they would also help us to build an indigenous industry here.

Alexa O'Brien

What does indigenous mean to you? Are you talking about an instate film and production industry that produces enough instate work to keep its technicians employed?

Jeff Monks

Ideally, that would be the best of the best: to not have to rely on recruiting production. The reality of the situation: We see many of our competitors creating their own product and utilizing the resources within their communities. There is not as much of that going on here.

Alexa O'Brien

What kind of equipment or training are students receiving at South Carolina's universities and technical schools?

Jeff Monks

Let's start at the coast and work west. In North Charleston, at Trident Technical College, they have two programs, but the one that best relates is their film program. They have 35 mm camera lenses, grip and electric equipment, dollies, a generator, and a truck. They have a nice, small 35 mm and 16 mm package. So, those people are actually getting more hands on experience, but they are not necessarily getting the creative side. In the central portion of the state, there is USC and their media arts department, who focus upon more of the director, creative, producer, and the organizational structure, but they are not creating product. They are not as hands on. Further west, Clemson University, has a program called the digital production arts program. They are creating films in computers and turning out special effects artists. Their graduates are getting out and going straight to LA or NY. You have three very separate programs. One of the goals we are after is getting these folks to collaborate, not only amongst themselves, but also in conjunction with professionals.

Alexa O'Brien

So, would this production fund fall under an umbrella organization that these collaborators would dip into?

Jeff Monks

That is right. That is part of the third component of the legislation. The third component of the legislation that passed - again the first was the incentives to recruit product; the second component was to incentivize production or postproduction facilities; and the third component: created a production fund. Again, that production fund will be introduced the first quarter of 2006. It seeks collaboration between our schools and professionals.

Alexa O'Brien

What will the name of that particular umbrella organization be?

Jeff Monks

Well right now it's the "The South Carolina Film Project".

Alexa O'Brien

How does your organization plan to help South Carolina below-the-line businesses compete with the lower cost structures localities currently reaping the influx of outsourced production dollars?

Jeff Monks

That is a tough question. There are no straightforward answers. The first and immediate thing we can do...the first part of the legislation creates rebates for using South Carolina crew, talent, and suppliers. Production comes in to spend a minimum of one million dollars in South Carolina and then they are eligible for 15% wage rebate, 15% supplier rebate, and they are exempt from sales and use taxes. So that is the first thing we can do to address that. There are so many very tough decisions that not only we face, but all of America. How can we compete?

Alexa O'Brien

Who in your mind is South Carolina's main competitor for production dollars?

Jeff Monks

It used to be the Southeast, then it became the nation, then it became Australia. Whom do we compete with everyday? We compete with the world.

Alexa O'Brien

What are the figures by format for the last five years? Features, commercials, episodic, et cetera?

Jeff Monks

Last year, July 1, was when the incentive program was introduced. The production industry is cyclical especially on the feature and pilot side. So, they get to go in January or February and are in production in June. Then there is usually another cycle where they get their next go in May, so they have wrapped production ideally before the holidays start. So, when our legislation passed on July 1 we were at the peak of production. Its was too late to bring them in. So what we have really been focusing on in these past six to twelve months is getting the word out there about what our incentive program is: how it works and how it directly applies to production budgets...really communicate that to the studios, the producers, the line producers, the UPM's, and the location managers. That being said: 2004 over 2005 saw over a ninety-seven percent increase in revenue to the state. In 2004, we just started getting back in the game at slightly less than six million dollars of direct revenue to the state, and last year we were just shy of twelve million.

Alexa O'Brien

When the U.S. Department of Commerce put out their report on runaway production, it outlined the systemic vagueness around production financials coupled with the lack of standard among state and local film commissions regarding how they accounted for revenue from production. The report suggested that greater clarity was needed...

Jeff Monks

Here is the crux of the problem. In the past without incentives, we were dependent upon the producer to tell us how much they spent in South Carolina. So there is a huge variable right there. Then you have to compare how each state reports their revenues, nobody reports their revenue the same way, and so trying to compare South Carolina revenues to North Carolina revenues is apples to oranges.

Alexa O'Brien

It seems notoriously difficult to nail down figures especially for projects that cross state lines. Is that accurate to say?

Jeff Monks

It has been in the past. In creating our incentive legislation, we can audit those figures, so now we will actually better know exactly what is spent and where? For example, on the supplier side, we can see where we are losing production dollars...grip and electric rentals, et cetera. If that's leaving the state we know that, we can go to suppliers like High Output and say, "Hey look guys, we just has four films and we've lost three million dollars worth of business in grip and electric. Here is a hole that you can fill in South Carolina."


Alexa O'Brien

Does your organization under your leadership keep track of production days for the state?

Jeff Monks

Well everybody's budgets are different so when you look at production days it doesn't equate.

Alexa O'Brien

So you would consider the most accurate measurement by revenue reported to the state?

Jeff Monks

Yeah. I mean more production means more people are working consistently, that is definitely a win. Ultimately, it's a variable. Are you working for seventy-five dollars a day or are you working for five hundred dollars a day?

Alexa O'Brien

Is South Carolina mostly interested in attracting features? The financing pie for feature production seems to be growing smaller and smaller. At the same time, there are and more and more locations fighting over the production dollar from that diminishing pie. Cable television, on the other hand, is starved for content. Is South Carolina focused primarily on features or is there a strategy in place for, say, attracting commercials.

Jeff Monks

Well, one of the benefits of features with a small office like ours is that we just went from two to four people in the past year. The ROI is much higher. With so few people, you have got to be able to focus on what is going to get that project to South Carolina. Either I can focus on a cable series that is going to spend $150,000 an episode and do ten episodes, or I can focus on five features that are going to spend fifty million dollars. So, you have to go through that analysis. Where are we going to get the biggest bang for our buck? Where are we going to get the most people employed? What best benefits the state?

Alexa O'Brien

I understand. Personally, I do not think it is solely the job of the state to create the stimulus. There has to be some motivation and movement on the part of business. Business is stimulated by people who are interested in business. Are there any alliances that your organization has with business organizations in South Carolina?

Jeff Monks

That in and of itself is part of our goal and our mission. Educating our economic development allies as to why this business is important and how they can benefit from it. So, you have to start from that. Not only do we have to recruit it, but we have to educate our state and our communities as to why they want it, so that we can develop partnerships in order to recruit more production dollars to South Carolina.

Alexa O'Brien

Can you tell me what happened with the Charleston Media Technology Park? Was the state not ready or just not interested in that project? Do you know anything about that?

Jeff Monks

Yeah, I have worked with Debra Rosen for many years. It was a number of issues: New Mexico certainly had a jump start in terms of incentives. She was able to capitalize on their incentive program and their solid base of knowledge about the industry as compared to what was available in South Carolina at that time.

Alexa O'Brien

I want to ask you about Katrina. First, I want to say that I realize this question is a delicate one for all involved. It's like 9/11, I want to be very careful because people have been displaced. Some professional in North and South Carolina that I have spoken to have remarked to me that production slated for Louisiana will most likely relocate to places like North and South Carolina because of Katrina. Louisiana, however, is aggressively going after production revenue and has made it a point to keep production that was shooting there. Will Katrina have any affect on how much production is going on in South Carolina?

Jeff Monks

Yes. I think, probably. Immediately, a few folks realize that hurricanes can do a lot of damage. From the west coast point of view, it's an unknown quantity, but ultimately when you look at the hundred year hurricane map and where they strike, South Carolina is in fairly good stead compared to some of our neighbors. But, yeah, it is fresh in everybody's mind.

Alexa O'Brien

Will South Carolina get more production because of what happened in Louisiana?

Jeff Monks

Well certainly, we have had production run from Louisiana to the state, and we had more inquiries probably because of New Orleans.

Alexa O'Brien

Do you have a representative in Los Angeles?

Jeff Monks

Yes, we have a part time L.A. rep. This legislation has also created the opportunity for us to receive some marketing funds that we never really had before. So, it's enabled us to have more of a presence in the trades and to be more face to face in L.A. and New York.

Alexa O'Brien

How do you learn about potential projects? Do they come to you?

Jeff Monks

I wish. Some of them do, and they do because we have worked with the Line Producer, the Director, or the Production Designer before. I have been in the industry for 30 years. You know what? When you are producing a commercial, a catalogue, or a feature film, you want to know that when you go to your client and say, "The budget for this project is, and I know I can get you exactly what you are asking for in South Carolina." Those personal relationships count a lot. Secondly, it is being present at the functions where the industry decision makers are.

Alexa O'Brien

Who is you LA representative?

Jeff Monks

His name is Mitchell Peck.

Alexa O'Brien

How long has he been with your organization?

Jeff Monks

Well he has only been with us three months. So, it's an early thing, but Mitchell has worked within the studio system. He has developed his own deals independently. He is more on the development end and has many contacts within the studio structure as well as Indies also development side. So he has added that whole other relationship for us, and that contact base for us, which gives us more access and allows us to develop more conversations about what they are doing and how we can meet solve their problems.

Alexa O'Brien

In terms of commercials, do you have a similar approach?

Jeff Monks

Oh sure. We actively go after the print area: catalogues and print ads. Anything in television, whether it is a single episode of Lost or a series, which would definitely be one of our goals: to recruit a series here...in some ways it is much more advantageous than a feature film. Again, we have four people to do all this. We are constantly juggling the balls trying to keep them in the air as a TV show develops - as they put together the financing; the distributor; the story; and the production management; making sure that we are at the right place at the right time to say here is the answer; and to keep that dialogue as that development continues. The average feature film, from the time that they buy a script to the time it is produced is almost eight years. Through those years, you know, talent drops out or the financing goes away...

Alexa O'Brien

In that context, I can certainly see the wisdom in going after feature films...

Jeff Monks

For example, an eight million dollar feature spent about three million, almost four million dollars, here recently. Our goal was not only to recruit that feature, but also to get as many South Carolinians involved in that - to capture as much of that production dollar as possible without leaking it out to North Carolina, or Georgia, or back to LA or New York.

Alexa O'Brien

It seems that South Carolina would also need to depend on repeat business.

Alexa O'Brien

The rumor on the street is that both Arriflex and Panavision have made their last 35mm cameras. Arriflex will not make anything after the Arricam and the Arricam Light and Panavision will not make anything after the Platinum, so neither will create new film cameras. They will just maintain what is already out there. In some respects, digital post technology also lowers the playing field in terms of newer production hubs able to make the capital investment in state of the art equipment. That is not to say that these clusters do not need to have the talent and skill to actually handle the highest level of work they would seek to attract, but nevertheless there are advantages to building an infrastructure along those lines considering the that digital technology has reaching critical mass on all points of the supply chain. It's not just film vs. "video" anymore. So what can states like South Carolina do to build the kind of infrastructure and cluster prepared for the digital age?

Jeff Monks

We had better have our act together for the digital realm. You are absolutely right.

Alexa O'Brien

More than just incentives, it seems that overall cost of labor is the real issue for producers.

Jeff Monks

Yeah, and well a lot of that is controlled through the unions, and that is something the unions have got to come to terms with, especially on the feature and the television side.

Alexa O'Brien

With thirty years experience in the film industry, how do you see the issue of cost of labor and outsourcing? You mentioned the unions are one component. Nobody wants to lose their job. One the other hand, you have technology and lower cost structures for labor outside the U.S.? How do you picture the landscape on these issues?

Jeff Monks

It is truly a race, and ultimately it's education first and foremost. Do you have the educated base ready and able to compete in that industry?

Alexa O'Brien

Thank you for your time.

Jeff Monks

You are welcome.

Alexa O'Brien Alexa O'Brien researches and writes about national security and law enforcement. Her work has been published in The New York Times, VICE News, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Guardian (UK), The Daily Beast, NY Daily News, and featured on the BBC, PBS, NPR, Democracy Now!, and Public Radio International. She was shortlisted for the 2013 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in the United Kingdom and listed in The Verge 50. In 2016, she worked at The Constitution Project in Washington, D.C. as a staff researcher and writer on an independent commission studying Oklahoma's death penalty. She also provided research support to scholars of the first cost study conducted on that state's capital punishment system.