Every year for the past decade, the biggest customer at the Columbus Antique Mall has been Famous Dave's barbecue. The franchise regularly bought up bric-a-brac to decorate the restaurants' walls.

Until last year, that is, when the biggest spender was Universal Studios. The set decorator for "Public Enemies" shopped there daily while the John Dillinger biopic was shooting in Columbus last March. The production crew snapped up more than $5,000 worth of relics (for its Depression-era set) - everything from a fur coat to vintage furniture - at the three-floor, 82,000-square-foot megastore.

"They thought they'd fallen into a gold mine," said Dan Amato, co-owner of the Columbus Antique Mall with his wife, Rose.

Whether "Public Enemies" was a gold mine for the rest of Wisconsin is open to debate. It's the first high-profile, big-budget movie to take advantage of the state's year-old film incentive that promises a 25 percent rebate on expenses spent while a film, television or video production is in Wisconsin.

Seven films, one television series and two video game productions applied in 2008. The Department of Commerce, which oversees the film incentive program and other business incentives like it, has already doled out two rebates: to "Public Enemies," the new Michael Mann film starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale coming to theaters July 1; and to the relatively low-budget "Fort McCoy," a World War II drama starring Eric Stoltz which is scheduled to hit theaters in September.

States like Wisconsin have offered such incentives as a way to entice U.S. filmmakers to film at home rather than moving their productions to Canada, where they've enjoyed relatively cheap production costs.

"You have to use incentives to keep the work here in the United States. Canada was whupping our ass. They were bringing tons of projects to Toronto and Vancouver," said Scott Robbe, co-founder and executive director of Film Wisconsin, the public-private hybrid organization that scouts and lobbies for the incentive program.

Now, Hollywood-based productions are shopping around to different states. Before the incentive program went into effect here, both "Juno" and "Revolutionary Road" considered Wisconsin but ultimately went elsewhere (British Columbia and Connecticut, respectively). As states jostle each other for big-budget movies, critics charge that the incentive programs are sapping millions of dollars from state coffers, often with little return beyond some glory and recognition for residents.

Wisconsinites across the state got caught up in the excitement of moviemaking in 2008. There were "Public Enemies" blogs, Christian Bale sightings on the Capitol lawn and breathless stories from extras. There was much talk of Wisconsin being the "third coast" for film production - "Cowwywood," as one local newspaper punned.

But the numbers for "Public Enemies" seem to throw a wet blanket on that hype. The film brought $5 million into the state economy but cost taxpayers $4.6 million. That includes ponying up for 25 percent of director Michael Mann's almost $2 million salary; star Johnny Depp's six-figure out-of-state entourage; and an "ultra-expensive" wrap party for the crew, according to state Department of Commerce executive assistant Zach Brandon.

"We believe it was nearly a wash," he said. In addition, the work hours that "Public Enemies" generated for Wisconsin residents added up to, at best, only five full-time jobs. That's an $871,000 per-job price tag for taxpayers, by Brandon's calculations. "When you do an economic analysis, they didn't create jobs; they hired people."

He compares this to Sargento Cheese's recent $3 million tax credit, plus $1.25 million in additional state help, for expansion at plants in Plymouth, Hilbert and Kiel. The company expects the expansion to yield 500 jobs over the next five years and added 111 full-time jobs last year.

Cheesemaking and filmmaking might not seem like comparable industries, but Brandon said they are essentially the same in the eyes of the DOC. Especially in this tough economy, incentive programs necessarily compete for dollars against each other.

The glory that a high-profile film like "Public Enemies" brings to a state does in fact have an economic benefit. But how exactly "glory" gets measured in dollars is a point of contention.

All the attention acted as a confidence boost for Wisconsin, said Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, likening it to catching your reflection in the hall mirror.

"If we look good to Michael Mann, how else do we look good? And what aren't we leveraging for our own economic growth here? Communities paused and did an asset inventory," said Lawton, who chairs the Wisconsin Arts Board and has been a committed proponent of the incentive program.

A recent editorial published in the Oshkosh Northwestern called "community pride and drive the biggest benefits when luring Hollywood to Wisconsin." The paper glowed over the town's own brush with "Public Enemies," which "jammed" area businesses and attracted onlookers during shoots. Like other towns where "Public Enemies" filmed, Oshkosh became a "superstar."

That confidence boost was felt not only by communities, but by individuals who got involved with the film. Edgewood College senior Alex Hoffmaster "absolutely loved" his four days as an extra on the "Public Enemies" set - in Darlington, Oregon and Mirror Lake.

His first workday was almost 17 hours, and another went through the night till dawn. At a scene in an apple orchard outside Oregon, the crew actually uprooted and moved trees to better fit the shoot.

"I was just blown away by how many people it takes to make a film," he said.

The experience inspired the former football player to explore a suppressed love of acting. Last semester, he took a film editing class at Edgewood, and he was recently cast in the theater department's production of "Metamorphosis."

"I wanted to be an actor my whole life, but I never had the guts to say it," he said.

Self-confidence and feeling like a superstar aren't the kind of factors you can plug easily into an economic analysis, however. Brandon calls these intangibles "hype, headlines and hyperbole." While he admits that hype "absolutely" has its benefits, it's nothing compared to actual job creation - which ostensibly is the point of offering incentives. When the Department of Commerce analyzes an incentive recipient's benefit to the state, it looks at taxes and job creation. It doesn't consider the groceries that a company's new employees will buy or the Wisconsin Dells vacations they'll take. It doesn't consider perks to tourism.

"There's a point where the argument becomes so diluted as to what the multiplier is that it's no longer grounded in any kind of economic reality. It's just speculation," said Brandon.

Lawton argues that film project incentives can't be measured in the traditional way. "It's not like when we gave a grant to GM and said, 'We hope you'll be creating jobs.' People have been hired, money has been spent, and now we're offering basically a rebate. Nobody cuts a check until the money is in our state and already circulating in our economy."

Film Wisconsin estimates that "Public Enemies" had a $7.5 million direct economic benefit to Wisconsin, and Lawton stands by this estimate. Brandon claims that this number is padded with production expenses that the state doesn't count toward its tax breaks. Even if it were the true sum, he added, it still doesn't stack up against other programs.

Based on results from "Public Enemies," the film incentive program's performance is "embarrassing," said Brandon. It's not that creating an infrastructure for film, television and video games is a bad idea, he added, but the program should be tweaked to benefit homegrown studios more than Hollywood.

"We went from 0 to 60 so fast. Having a huge Hollywood blockbuster didn't really leave any permanent (infrastructure). Helping a small studio get out of someone's basement and into a building doesn't cost a lot of money, but it doesn't grab headlines either," he said.

Smaller productions were out making films in force in Wisconsin in 2008, too. Filmmaker Nick Langholff said that mid-sized productions, like his forthcoming "Feed the Fish," are necessary to help grow and nurture Wisconsin's film community from within.

A Fort Atkinson native, Langholff spent the early leg of his career in New York City. A few years ago, in his early 30s, he moved back to Wisconsin to take care of his ailing grandfather. Now he plans to stay and carve out a film career for himself. He still travels often to New York and Los Angeles, but he keeps an apartment above Mickey's Tavern on Madison's east side.

"NONAMES," the $850,000 production he shot last year in Wisconsin Rapids, is receiving an incentive rebate. He had hoped to receive the incentive for his 2007 film "Madison," but the legislation creating the program was delayed.

In February, he begins filming "Feed the Fish" in Door County. Billed as a " 'Groundhog Day' meets 'Fargo,' " the feature-length romantic comedy stars Emmy Award-winning actor Tony Shalhoub ("Monk"). Even though Shalhoub is from Green Bay, this is his first production in his home state.

Using his connections, Langholff is working on attracting the film industry to Wisconsin. "A lot of people in L.A., they're interested in filming in Wisconsin because they want a fresh look. They don't want to keep re-creating this Midwest look out in California and trying to sell it as the Midwest," he said.

For "Public Enemies," Mann recently told Entertainment Weekly that it was imperative to shoot Dillinger's story using the places where the gangster had been. "When your hand touches the same doorknob Dillinger's did, it starts to talk to you," Mann said.

The incentive program has also kept other Wisconsinites in the state. Director Steve Boettcher is receiving an incentive for "Pioneers of Television," a series that will be airing on PBS. For one segment, he and his crew did a "huge re-creation" of the set of "The Honeymooners" at a TV station in Milwaukee.

"Any other year, we would have gone to Hollywood," he said. Although the incentive doesn't specifically require productions to hire residents, Boettcher said his company is now "more conscious of that state line. We've changed our complete philosophy on keeping more of the work here, instead of going to Florida or California."

Signs of a blossoming creative industry infrastructure are emerging across Wisconsin - whether directly or indirectly related to the incentive program. Earlier this month, a 27,000-square-foot entertainment studio complex opened in St. Francis, just outside Milwaukee - without help from the state. Located in an old manufacturing building that serviced cranes, RDI Stages offers 42-foot ceilings and the option of using an in-house production company (which will be applying for the incentive for future projects).

"We would not have done this without the film incentives," said RDI Stages co-owner Janine Sijan Rozina.

Development is reaching north, too. Film Green Bay is a new initiative aimed at attracting productions to the city. The $5.2 million sci-fi film "Nephilim" is its first scoop.

Film Wisconsin is also trying to cash in on video game development. Though less glitzy than movies, "the amount of money that comes in for the retail purchase of video games exceeds all box office sales combined," Robbe said. "Can we attach a video game component to this film in order to boost revenue? That's one of the first questions asked by Hollywood when they're considering green-lighting a picture."

Like the Department of Commerce, Lawton is pushing for changes to the program. She wants more clearly defined eligibility, more rewards for the employment of Wisconsinites and limited credit to non-residents, and mandatory annual reporting. She's also proposing an application fee for the program - 2 percent of the requested budget or $5,000, whichever is less - to ensure that filmmakers are serious and not "doing a scattergun approach."

The main sticking point between her proposed changes and the DOC's proposal is two words: "up to." Brandon would like to see the state's payout qualified as "up to" 25 percent and capped at $5 million, so that the state has negotiating leverage and can't be used as "an unlimited pot of money."

Lawton counters that such a cap would essentially kill the program and send productions to other states. Illinois increased its rebate to 30 percent this month. Michigan's 42 percent incentive is one of the most aggressive in the country, but Lawton isn't worried: "That's a bit like a Hail Mary, because a film producer coming in has to assume that a state is good for its refund. And Michigan is hurting."

Back in Columbus, all the Hollywood attention has been a business boost for the antique mall, making up for the customers it lost when filming shut roads off and limited access to it. Dan Amato still sees a lot of curiosity seekers come in, attracted to Columbus by the film's reputation.

Authenticity often took precedence over aesthetics when it came to outfitting the film's sets, from a brothel to a henchman's living room. A patchy fur coat originally from a thrift store fetched $75. In the eyes of the set decorator, ratty furniture suddenly took on value.

"To me, that was the ugliest-looking chair and couch we had in here," said Amato's wife, Rose, referencing two pieces that ended up on the set. "I thought, 'Oh my heavens,' but I guess it's from the era."

Dan Amato said that when studio buyers were in town for "Public Enemies," they stocked up on vintage items to take back to the studio warehouse in Hollywood for use in future films. He expects they'll be back for more items they can only find in Wisconsin.

"The next time Universal does a film in Wisconsin, there's no question in my mind, they'll shop here," he said.

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