Felipe Dieppa never thought he would set foot in Kentucky. A native of Queens, N.Y., he had a successful career as a child actor, originating the voice of Diego on the animated series “Dora the Explorer” and essaying roles in everything from “Law & Order: SVU” to the movie “Dan in Real Life” before segueing to a career as a producer. But when the pandemic hit, he decided to settle down in Louisville with his fiancée, a Kentucky native who was leaving New York to start a non-alcoholic beverage company in her home state.
When Dieppa arrived, he discovered a thriving grassroots arts scene, a welcoming populace that defies coastal prejudices about “red state” inhabitants, and a film and TV industry that is just beginning to take off, aided by a 30%-35% tax credit. That credit has helped inspire the construction of new soundstage complexes and attracted a wave of visiting productions, including director Ethan Hawke’s biopic “Wildcat,” starring his daughter Maya Hawke as novelist Flannery O’Connor, Ash Alvidsen’s “Queen of the Ring,” starring Emily Bett Rickards and Walton Goggins, and Tracie Laymon’s “Bob Trevino Likes It,” starring Barbie Ferreira and John Leguizamo.
“It reminds me of New York indie film circa the early 2000s to 2015 with people making incredible films with a bunch of young filmmakers stepping up to department head roles,” says Dieppa, who is one of the producers on “Bob Trevino Likes It.” “It’s got the East Coast-like grind in terms of like, ‘Five night shoots in a row? Let’s go!’ But it still has this Southern Midwest vibe of we need to like each other to get through that grind. That Southern hospitality is absolutely real.”
To outsiders, Kentucky is probably best known for its bourbon. It boasts a “Bourbon Trail” of 46 distilleries with tastings and tours, including such world-famous labels as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Maker’s Mark. The Bluegrass State also has a thriving horse culture, exemplified by the annual Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Before Kentucky enacted a viable incentive, those were the primary draws for productions looking to shoot there, according to local location manager Adam Snyder.
“Now, they’re trying to find something that might look like Oregon or New Mexico and other places just so they can kind of shoehorn in whatever project they have for the incentives,” says Snyder.
A prime example of this phenomenon is “Wildcat,” a mid-20th century period piece set primarily in Georgia. It’s a sweet score for Kentucky, especially given that Georgia has been the No. 3 film and TV production hub in the U.S. behind California and New York in recent years, thanks to its 20%-30% transferable tax credit, attracting projects that might’ve gone to Kentucky.
Laymon, writer-director on the project, originally intended to shoot “Bob Trevino Likes It” along the Oklahoma border in her home state of Texas, but after scouting Louisville, switched it to the Kentucky-Indiana border.
“I wanted a timeless feel, and the locations were just wonderful, like the shotgun houses and this diner we found [D. Nalley’s],” says Laymon. “Getting away from L.A. was so great for the story and I think the actors really enjoyed immersing themselves and in a smaller, regional kind of environment.”
Kentucky also has a wealth of Anywhere USA suburbs, areas in downtown Louisville that can convincingly stand in for New York City, and the highest concentration of restored Victorian homes in the U.S. in a 48-city-block neighborhood known as Old Louisville.
“We have such diverse locations, from cities and the urban core to rural farms, plains out in the west, mountains in the east and rolling hills in central Kentucky that could double for Ireland,” says Jay Hall, senior VP of business development for Lexington-based Wrigley Media Group.
The one thing the state doesn’t have is a lot of soundstage facilities, but that is quickly changing. In December, River City Entertainment Group announced it was undertaking a $65 million revamp of the historic Louisville Gardens building, restoring the facade to its original design as the Jefferson County Armory in 1905 and turning it into a production complex. Scheduled to open in 2025, it will feature four soundstages with a total of 40,00 square feet of studio space, along with offices, a black box theater, retail space and a public museum. The Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority Board has tentatively approved $700,000 in state and local job creation incentives for the project to be distributed over a 10-year period.
Eighty-one miles to the southeast in Lexington, Wrigley Media Group is putting the finishing touches on Lex Studios, which is expected to have its official grand opening in October. Formerly the 10-theater Woodhill Cinemas multiplex, the facility has been transformed into a state-of the-art production facility with three stages, as well as offices and flex space for hair, makeup and wardrobe as well as plenty of parking.
Kentucky first got into the game as a production destination in 2015, when it raised its base tax credit to 30%, and added an extra 5% for local hires and shooting in “enhanced incentive counties.” But just as it began to establish itself as an industry player, the legislature put a $1 million annual cap on the program and made the credit nonrefundable, effectively kneecapping it. Last year, it bounced back when the annual cap was raised to $75 million, with a per-project cap of $10 million, and the credit was once again made refundable. The state ended up approving approximately $50 million in incentives in 2022 for projects including the action-thriller “Red Right Hand,” starring Orlando Bloom and Andie MacDowell.
As the production level has increased, so has Kentucky’s ability to service it.
Back in early 2022, “we could probably handle two to four million-dollar films,” says Soozie Eastman, president of the nonprofit 502 Film and chair of the Louisville Film Commission. “And now we have multiple $6 million to $12 million films going and the majority of their crews are local.”
Kentucky is poised to get even busier in 2024, when a new provision of the incentive takes effect, providing a 5% bump to the tax credit, for a maximum of 40%, to productions that commit to spend a minimum of $10 million a year for two years and participate in an apprenticeship program or partner with an accredited film studies program.
“What we’re trying to do is to encourage more continuous filming enterprises — film slates, as well as television projects, since we know so much of the industry is kind of pivoting away from feature film and more over to TV production and streaming,” explains Timothy Bates, Kentucky Entertainment Incentive Program administrative manager.
In the meantime, residents are getting used to having stars in their midst.
“I was having lunch and overheard somebody talking about how Ethan Hawke had been to the restaurant, and they were wondering why he was here,” says Geoffrey Storts, first assistant camera operator on “Wildcat.” “And I was like, ‘I’m actually working on the movie.’ They asked where I was from and I said, ‘I live right down the street.’ And they were like, ‘Wow, I didn’t I didn’t realize that was a thing that’s possible here.’”