Friday, April 25, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas’ neon-lit, mobster-shadowed history is a frequent backdrop for movies and television shows. But the fact that a movie is being filmed and produced here with a crew nearly all from Nevada is rare.
With that, the movie’s co-producer, Las Vegas native Chris Ramirez, hopes it will show state lawmakers that a new tax incentive works. Ramirez hopes the incentive will grow to attract more productions. It might not be a bad bet, given that the state’s main revenue source, gaming, is dropping fast.
"There’s a ton of potential to make this a cool and sustainable industry here," said Ramirez, founder of Lola Pictures. "The city and state seem open-minded. It can work."
The movie, an untitled film about a roadie with a punk rock band in the 1980s, has to work, too. Box-office success would help Ramirez, and wages for Nevada residents would help the tax incentive program, too.
Ramirez lobbied hard for the program, including making a trip to Carson City with actor Nicolas Cage, who testified in favor of the incentive. In a state that hates giving up money almost as much as it hates taxes, he and others needed two legislative sessions to get the bill passed. They did it by selling the program as a way to diversify Nevada’s economy and reduce the state’s dependence on gaming and tourism, a goal of state leaders for decades.
Nevada’s transferrable tax incentive program began Jan. 1. It is available to productions with budgets greater than $500,000 and that shoot at least 60 percent in the state. Credits start at 15 percent of qualified expenses — but can increase 2 percentage points if 50 percent of the crew are state residents. The credit maxes out at $6 million per production.
Lawmakers said they supported the program because Nevada products had declined by 40 percent since 2001, at least 40 other states have incentives and new projects could boost the economy by attracting repeat business and more attention.
The pilot program is scheduled to end after four years.
Now, 15 percent incentive is a far cry from the 20 percent to 30 percent incentives offered in states such as Louisiana and New Mexico. But it’s a start. And for Ramirez, who just a year ago felt he could lose his company, it’s practically a miracle.
Last year, Ramirez was still trying to prove himself to his financial backers, Zappos.com chiefs Tony Hsieh and Fred Mossler, who officially has no title but has been with Zappos since 1999.
At the time, Ramirez had three businesses: Lola Pictures, Downtown Films and Silver State Productions. Downtown Films produces television commercials; Silver State Productions provides bread-and-butter crew assistance for various productions, including "The Hangover Part III."
Lola Pictures was supposed to develop and produce films. If he could make Lola succeed, Ramirez thought Lola could sustain Silver State Productions and Downtown Films.
But early on, he lost focus.
"I think we kind of got a little too big, had too much on our plate," he said. "Downtown Films was doing some commercials and Silver State was trying to be this big production entity. I realized then the real future was with Lola, the one division of the company that wasn’t off the ground yet."
Ramirez had to make the pitch to Hsieh, Mossler and Don Welch, Downtown Project’s small business chief, to get Lola off the ground. Ramirez is candid: They wanted to see progress; barring that, he feared they would turn over the reins to someone else.
"So I went to Tony and Fred and Don and said: ‘This is what’s going to save us. Making movies is going make this all work.' "
They agreed to give him a little more time.
Meanwhile, Ramirez had been in meetings with Hollywood agencies searching for a project to launch Lola Pictures. That’s when he found the script of Gerardo Naranjo, whose directorial star is rising. The Internet Movie Database says he is tagged to direct a reprisal of "Death Wish," a 1974 movie that starred Charles Bronson. He also landed a star, Dakota Fanning, whose credits include "War of the Worlds" and "The Twilight Saga" series.
Script in hand, Ramirez returned with Jason Miller, his chief operation officer, to Hsieh and his partners to ask for money.
"I said, 'I have a great movie and director and a great star, and I want you to finance it,' " he said.
They gave a tentative approval, then a full endorsement when more of the cast came on. They include Evan Rachel Wood ("Across The Universe" and "The Wrestler"), Frank Dillane (who played Tom Riddle in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince") and Zoe Kravitz ("X-Men: First Class," and daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet).
"I’m sure everybody told those guys that this was going to be one of their worst investments," Ramirez said, looking back with no small amount of relish. "But we have a project with really good partners and an amazing cast. I feel really confident about it."
As they film on Mount Charleston and next week downtown, Ramirez is working on more deals.
He said he has investors lined up to produce "Dulcinea," which is written and would be directed by Mark Fergus, who also wrote "Iron Man" and "Children of Men."
Ramirez said he’s also working on a Western that could star Kurt Russell and confirmed he is seeking the rights to do a movie about legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.
"It certainly didn’t happen overnight, but we’ve put a good team in place and are fortunate to have no shortage of great projects in front of us," Ramirez said.
That’s good for Lola Pictures, but it could also be good for Las Vegas’ economy.
"The greatest thing about Las Vegas is it’s right in front of us and totally up to us to get it done," Ramirez said, sounding like the city’s pitchman. "We got the incentive passed. Tony (Hsieh) and Fred (Mossler) stepped up to the plate and financed a homegrown movie."
The next phase, he added, will be convincing state lawmakers that the state needs bigger tax incentive to foster Las Vegas’ cottage filmmaking industry.
Las Vegas resident Cage, the actor, told the Sun Thursday he knows Las Vegas' production industry will grow.
"Las Vegas is a perfect place for movies and television production because of its proximity to the industry in Los Angeles," he said via email. "The industry will save money on travel and we have this massive infrastructure with hotels to be cost effective for them.
"The area has much to offer scenically in a new way for movies and there's nothing like Vegas at night. This will work. Already is. Wait and see."
Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, a powerful Clark County Democrat whose support was crucial to passage of the 15 percent incentive last year, said the future of the incentive hinges on its success.
"Hopefully, we’ll be able to see it working," she said.