LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Disney could be next in line to establish a studio production presence in Southern Nevada, according to officials presenting Senate Bill 496 (SB496) Wednesday in Carson City.
On the heels of Sony’s May 11 announcement that it was partnering with the Howard Hughes Corporation to build in Summerlin, developer Brandon Birtcher said interest is growing because of the tax credits and long-term investments included in the legislation.
“The second has surfaced in the last few weeks which has been Jeremy Renner, who has mentioned that Disney might even be a possible studio partner for them,” Birtcher said as the bill was presented to the Senate Finance Committee.
“Sony and Disney are just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
“We have been in very active negotiations with many studio production companies. And once this bill becomes law, we will be concluding the negotiations and then making the announcement of our big name production partners,” Birtcher said.
The Film Bill
Its sponsor, Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas), calls it “The Film Bill,” but as details of SB496 come out, jobs and education play very big parts in the high interest in plans for two sites where TV/movie production studios could land in Las Vegas.
And the presence of Mark Wahlberg on the steps of the Legislature never hurts in making your case. After a bill hearing that lasted close to four hours, all eyes were on Wahlberg as he talked about what the bill could mean for Nevada.
Standing alongside Howard Hughes Corp. CEO David Reilly, Wahlberg said the bill would mean thousands of jobs and a long-term commitment to attracting the movie business to Southern Nevada.
“We want to create as much opportunity for as many people as possible,” he said. “We want to uncover new and exciting talent. There are so many amazing storytellers out there and so many amazing stories to be told.”
Nevada is now home for Wahlberg, who left California. “I just wish I’d made the move sooner,” he said. Wahlberg and Renner have talked about the possibilities that SB496 could bring, and Renner has made efforts to get a piece of the pie for Northern Nevada. He lives on the Nevada shore of Lake Tahoe.
New details on development
The $190 million annually in tax credits for 20 years would be the largest proposed tax incentive package in recent state history, even after its deals with Tesla and Redwood Materials totaled hundreds of millions of dollars each. But unlike those deals, which used direct tax abatements, these tax credits would only be awarded upon completion of the films at studios built by private developers.
The studio projects are partnerships in two different locations in the valley. UNLV and Birtcher Development are partners at the UNLV Tech Park, located in the southwest valley on Sunset Road near Durango Drive, near IKEA. The second site — involving Sony Pictures and Howard Hughes Corp. — sits along the 215 Beltway in Summerlin South. That site surrounds the R.C. Willey furniture store.
Birtcher said development at the UNLV Tech Park would occur in five phases, with the first finished in 2027 and the last phase finishing in 2029. That site would have 10 soundstages.
The presentations answered many of the questions surrounding the proposal, but also provided a stage for lawmakers to address many other points.
The nature of the partnership with UNLV was one of the subjects.
Birtcher said he expects the partnership to build UNLV into a film school on par with USC, NYU and Chapman University. But lawmakers gravitated to details of the plan — like how much in tax revenue would come from the UNLV Tech site. The answer: taxes would only be paid on the improvements made on the land, not the land itself, which would remain in UNLV’s possession.
Competition between states
Tax credits for movies are ultracompetitive … and a bit cutthroat, with states undercutting other states as competition grows. Birtcher dismissed concerns that studios would just move on when the next deal gets better in another state. He said the infrastructure investment by the state sets this deal apart from the rest.
Opponents of the bill labeled it as “corporate welfare” that leaves the state without tax revenue that it should be earning.
“We offer these abatements and credits at the expense of our communities,” Battle Born Progress leader Annette Magnus said. “If you want to bring your business here, then please do. Please do it on your own and at your own expense and stop using our communities to fund it.”
Another criticism came from several people with experience in the Southern Nevada film industry. Jessica Fox, a hairstylist and makeup artist, and John Fortune, a sound mixer, had similar accounts of locals being passed over for jobs.
Fox said, “Production will do whatever it takes to get 50% crew, except hiring actually hiring the locals.” She continued, “This version of the bill negates all of the protections needed for us locals that we’ve been trying to get in front of anyone that matters.”
Fortune followed with, “I was hired to be a boom operator on the Marky Mark movie that came to town and the night before they called me and said they were bringing everyone from Georgia.”
Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) said a residency form is under consideration as amendments continue on the bill in the last days of the session.
There was no discussion of the writer’s strike currently going on.
A presentation given to lawmakers contained more details from the bill:
Birtcher, who is based in Newport Beach, California, threw out a compliment to woo lawmakers: “You have the diverse beauty from Tahoe, and the canyons and the deserts and the moonscapes and the cityscapes and all of the opportunities they have to shoot in our backyard — they don’t have to travel, and that’s a huge benefit for these film companies.”
Greg Ferraro of The Ferraro Group said, “The equation is this, in our minds: This is one of those moments in time where this state gets to decide do we want to seriously consider diversifying our economy, with COVID in the rear-view mirror, so that we can take away our dependency on one industry … for an industry that overperformed during COVID. The industry we are talking about today showed amazing resilience because of the demand for that kind of content.”
Republican Sen. Robin Titus, who represents rural counties in Northern Nevada, asked if there was enough water in Las Vegas to handle this kind of development.
Matt Walker of Hughes Corp. said all the land is already zoned commercial and that water had been a topic in discussions already.
“Of all the laundry list of potential economic development opportunities that run the range from mining to manufacturing, we strongly believe that film production, which essentially is a human factory for art, is the most water-smart economic development we could do in Southern Nevada,” Walker said.