Put Hawaii on the digital map
By Chris Lee
Hotel revenue is down. Businesses are closing or being auctioned off. Furlough Fridays have become the new normal. Yet unlike almost every other sector of our economy, creative media is hiring local people with living wage jobs.
While everyone's been wondering how Hawai'i builds a sustainable alternative to our government/construction/service-employee economy, it's time to recognize that Hawai'i is already generating and keeping an indigenous creative workforce that happens to be the most coveted kind in the world.
In 2010, Maui has already enjoyed production on Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" and O'ahu and Kaua'i will see months of shooting on Johnny Depp's "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and George Clooney's "The Descendants." Universal's "Battleship" is coming. "Lost" is in its final season, but "Hawaii Five-0" is rebooting, the Bethany Hamilton story "Soul Surfer," is in production, Korea's "Divine Hero" pilot is under way and numerous reality shows continue to flock here.
Hawai'i-based scripted pilots are in the works and local production companies like Talk Story ("The Tempest"), Island Film Group ("Princess Ka'iulani"), and Hawaii Film Partners ("Flight 29 Down"), have kept up a steady stream of films and TV shows. This represents hundreds of millions of dollars being spent in Hawai'i this year and it's only March.
Meanwhile, digital media — animation, video games and visual effects — is growing, too. University of Hawai'i graduate Henk Rogers' Tetris is the most successful video game in history and his Hawai'i-based company has launched its Avatar Reality Blue Mars massive multi-player with scores of skilled local employees.
Farther up Bishop Street, Hawaii Animation Studios just opened with 30 animators, most of them local graduates of the University of Hawai'i's media programs — with plans to grow to 150 employees as they expand from series like "Veggie Tales" to animated features.
When was the last time you heard of a company planning to hire 150 local people with permanent jobs that are not in the service sector?
Creative media production in all its forms is Hawai'i's best chance to soften the cyclical blows of our tourism-based economy.
Why is this possible now?
Broadband connects us to the global economy in ways that ships and planes cannot. Creative intellectual property requires only that we harness the natural skills of our students: it doesn't need endless access to greater capital, the importation of raw materials and the physical shipping of the finished product, vast tracts of land or resources or relocation to the Mainland.
The University of Hawai'i prepared for this opportunity when the Board of Regents approved a systemwide initiative called the Academy for Creative Media that received bipartisan support from the Legislature and the governor. Today, ACM's first campus at Mānoa has 350 students, 130 majors and 39 courses thanks to a great faculty and terrific students.
To capitalize on our success in this industry, we need the kind of measured, transparent, metric-based work force and infrastructure incentives that are fair to taxpayers, enhance our educational facilities and have been proven over the past decade to build a permanent industry in other states and countries.
In this era of the Great Recession, the two sectors of the economy that are actually doing well are higher education and entertainment. House Bill 2382 and Senate Bill 2355 are designed to combine both through digital media economic subzones within the radius of UH campuses. These bills are a blueprint for the kind of innovative public-private partnerships UH needs to fund itself while building our economy.
New Zealand's film and television industry is estimated by Pricewaterhouse-Coopers to generate $2.5 billion a year for its economy. Most recently, the bulk of "Avatar" was produced there, with $307 million spent and generating $50 million in taxes for the Kiwi nation.
Asked why New Zealand was chosen as the film's production location, "Avatar" producer Jon Landau said: "To be honest, we went for the tax credit." Indeed, incentives are the first thing producers and studios take into consideration when deciding where to shoot. But the second consideration is infrastructure and work force.
As one New Zealand official put it, thanks to "Avatar," "This is exactly where we need to be as a country — renowned for our technological know-how, creativity, talent and positive, can-do attitude."
Hawai'i can do the same.
Why not build on our momentum? HB 2382 and SB 2355 will develop infrastructure and workforce to help bring this economic success to the next level and realize Hawai'i's potential as the creative media hub of the Pacific Rim.
Chris Lee is founder and director of the University of Hawai'i Academy for Creative Media. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.