Fade-out from county film job is under wraps

The recent fade-out of Harry Donenfeld as Maui County film commissioner is “pretty disruptive” to the establishment of a film industry on Maui, said Socrates Buenger, owner and chief executive officer of Maui Film Studios LLC.

On Friday, Maui County announced that it was seeking applicants for the county film commissioner position, which pays from $60,000 to $65,000 annually. The announcement did not mention Donenfeld by name. He had held the job for 2 1/2 years, until Monday.

Mayor Alan Arakawa does credit “our last film commissioner” with taking “us to the next level by providing a full-service county website for the film community, helping to establish the Maui Film Studio and lobbying the Legislature to increase film tax credits.”

Teena Rasmussen, director of the county Office of Economic Development, oversees the film office. She said she could not comment on a “personnel issue.”

When contacted on his cellphone Friday, Donenfeld said he had no comment because he was not “at liberty” to discuss his departure from the film office.

In March, Buenger began leasing a 21,000-square-foot sound stage at the Maui Lani Village Center, and he has worked with Donenfeld to try to gain a foothold for the film industry on Maui.

In explaining his comment about Donenfeld’s departure being “disruptive,” Buenger said that the film industry is a “very sensitive business . . . It’s all about relationships.”

And Donenfeld “had a lot of good contacts in the industry,” he said. “I like Harry a lot . . . I think he’s a really good guy. The industry will miss him for sure.”

Buenger is a member of a search committee put together by the Arakawa administration to find a successor for Donenfeld. Other committee members are actor and screenwriter Owen Wilson, USA Network executive Jackie De Crinis, show business industry veteran Shep Gordon, actor Branscombe Richmond and On Location Services owner and location manager Glenn Beadles, according to the county’s announcement of the vacant position.

Five finalists will be vetted and selected and given to Arakawa, who will make the final appointment, the announcement said.

Buenger said that the committee also includes Rasmussen, Department of Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Brianne Savage and county spokesman Rod Antone. The panel first met earlier this week, he said.

Recently, Maui Film Studios lost three productions with combined budgets amounting to $300 million, Buenger confirmed Friday. The cancellations of those projects all happened on the same day, which he said was “kind of curious.”

Nevertheless, the studio is working hard to salvage one of the film productions and to gain the interest of a TV network pilot program on Maui, he said.

“We’re down, but we’re not out,” Buenger said.

When asked why his studio is struggling, Buenger said Arakawa has a “close relationship” with part-time Maui resident Ryan Kavanaugh, the chief executive officer of Relativity Media. According to the imdb.com, Kavanaugh’s 68 film credits include, with him as executive producer, “Zombieland” (2009), “The Fighter” (2010), “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011).

In March, Kavanaugh was honorary chairman of the Mayor’s Kokua Ball at the King Kamehameha Golf Club in Waikapu. The event was a fundraiser for the Mayor Arakawa Community Kokua Fund. The evening featured a celebrity-style red carpet walk with complimentary portrait photographs and a champagne greeting during a no-host cocktail hour with live music.

Buenger said Kavanaugh has been dismissive and “not friendly (about) what we’re doing” with Maui Film Studios.

Kavanaugh’s relationship with Arakawa has strained the local studio’s efforts to get “up and running,” he said.

According to Buenger, Kavanaugh has left Arakawa with the impression that “we’re not really real” and “not suitable for the industry” while only working on “creating a sound stage.”

Buenger said Maui Film Studios is doing more than developing a sound stage. It’s training film crews and cultivating local acting talent, he said.

“We’re working very hard to get up to speed,” he said, while Kavanaugh has not done anything other than to seek tax credits from the state Legislature to support a film industry in the islands.

“Ryan Kavanaugh is dependent on legislation that puts the taxpayer on the hook for his facilities,” he said.

Kavanaugh could not be reached for comment Friday, but he has lobbied for film tax credits in the islands and said previously that the cost of filming in Hawaii and the shortage of production studios are what have kept the film industry away from the islands.

Kavanaugh has proposed to build two film studios in Hawaii – one on Maui and the other on Oahu, with a total $400 million investment.

Responding to Buenger’s comments, Antone said that Arakawa supports both Kavanaugh and Buenger and their efforts to expand the film industry in Maui County.

Buenger’s comments about Kavanaugh are “not the county’s concern,” Antone said. “The mayor’s not involved.”

Antone released a letter by Arakawa supporting Buenger’s efforts to establish a film studio on Maui. He also pointed out that Buenger had been an executive assistant to the mayor from Aug. 21, 2006, to Jan. 3, 2007, during Arakawa’s first administration.

In Arakawa’s Feb. 9 letter to Buenger, the mayor offers him “our support and assistance with any permit issues that may arise or other regulatory matters that may come up.”

He also pledged the support of the Maui Film Office and the county Office of Economic Development.

Arakawa appointed Buenger to the search committee for the new film commissioner, Antone said.

The county announcement for the film commissioner position says that the job comes with two main responsibilities: attracting film productions to Maui County, and promoting and supporting home-grown film companies, producers, talent and other individuals to help provide job opportunities and improve the county’s economy.

For a full job description, go to hi-mauicounty.civicplus.com/Jobs. Applicants may send email to economic.development@mauicounty.gov. The Office of Economic Development’s phone number is 270-7710.

The deadline for applications is Oct. 14.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.