Film commissioner sets sights on TV series
Newly selected Maui County Film Commissioner Tracy Bennett is looking to “really push hard” over the next few months to bring a television series to the island next year.
“I’m coming into this job with a lot of connections so I want to put my foot to the grind and utilize those relationships,” Bennett said Friday. “My hope is to have something in the short term because the spring is a very big time for the business.”
The Kihei resident said he has been meeting with television and film studio executives nonstop since his selection as commissioner two weeks ago, and he recently returned from a 10-day trip to Boston and New York City.
“Studios are getting to the point of talking about what new shows to add, and I immediately want them to think of Maui because getting a series here would be really great,” he said, noting the success of Oahu-based shows such as “Hawaii Five-O” and “Lost.”
“I want to show that Maui is not always just about a great beach and palm tree,” he said. “Haleakala is a fabulous location, and we have plenty of office buildings and a small-town atmosphere.”
Bennett, a 17-year veteran in the film industry, previously worked as a unit still photographer for movies such as “Legally Blonde,” “Meet the Fockers” and “Remember the Titans.” He also has personal relationships with actors such as Adam Sandler, Ice Cube, Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro.
Bennett declined to say whom he met with on his trip to the East Coast, other than that they were actors and studio executives.
State Film Commissioner Donne Dawson met with Bennett before his trip to help him understand Maui County’s tax credit of 25 percent and hopefully spark interest from his contacts. The 25 percent refundable production tax credit for films on Maui is a state-administered credit. On Oahu, the credit is 20 percent
“I wanted to provide some guidance and film commissioner tips, in terms of his position now because it’s different from anything he’s ever done before,” Dawson said.
Before moving into the film industry, Bennett was an All-American kicker at Colorado Mesa University and played a combined six years professionally in the National and Arena football leagues.
“There were two things in my life that I thought I did well, which was taking pictures and kicking a football,” said Bennett, who spent time with the Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys. “When I was playing football, I’d find myself on the sideline talking to all the photographers and video guys, picking their brains on the technical sides.”
Bennett’s kicking career was cut short, however, when he twisted his leg while making a tackle during a kickoff return.
“As my career came to a close, I knew immediately that I wanted to move to (Los Angeles) and move into the movie business and become a photographer,” he said.
Upon moving to California, Bennett began working for movie studios in their publicity and marketing departments. He would spend the entire day on a set, taking photos to be used for movie posters, DVD box covers, magazines and other promotional materials.
“There’s lots of heavy Photoshopping going on,” he joked.
Much of Bennett’s new job as film commissioner will not be too foreign to him, though, because he already lobbied for one film to be shot on Maui, two years ago.
“Just Go with It,” a romantic comedy starring Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, was shot at the Grand Wailea after Bennett and his girlfriend, who works for the hotel, helped sway Sandler.
“We always felt the two of us were responsible for getting the movie at the Grand Wailea,” he said.
Bennett has been living on Maui off and on for the past five years but was looking to retire from his job that required frequent traveling.
“When I saw this opportunity I had to take it,” he said of his new position. “I’m at a point in my career where I want to settle down and dig my roots in Maui, and I want to promote it not as a film destination but a hub for production west of Los Angeles.”
Maui Film Studios owner Socrates Buenger has helped bring productions to the island with his 22,000-square-foot sound stage and welcomed Bennett’s hiring.
The film commissioner position had been vacant since October after the departure of Harry Donenfeld.
Bennett “was my unanimous first decision” to succeed Donenfeld, said Buenger, who was part of a search committee for a replacement. “He has a lot of good contacts and experience on-set, which is really important. He lives on Maui and has a solid understanding of the intricacies to bringing film production to (the island).”
Since Bennett’s hiring, Buenger has updated him on the upcoming film “Ethyrea: Code of the Brethren,” which will be using the studio for scenes.
The film is the first of five sci-fi adventure movies and will begin setting up production offices in January and movie sets in May, Buenger said.
The film’s budget is upwards of $160 million and it will be shot entirely in Maui County.
“I’m excited to work with Socrates on this film, and he and I will definitely get into more discussions soon,” Bennett said. “This could potentially be very huge for Maui.”
Bennett said he also will be reaching out to billionaire Lanai landowner Larry Ellison and his children, David and Megan.
The two siblings both own film production companies and have produced films such as “Star Trek,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “World War Z.”
While Dawson applauds Bennett’s connections and ambitions to attract more films on Maui, she cautioned him to meet Molokai, Lanai and other Maui residents in order to build “trust with communities.”
“That really needs to be step one,” she said.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* This article includes a correction from the original published on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013.The 25 percent refundable production tax credit for films on Maui is a state-administered credit. It was inaccurately described in a story published on Page A3 on Sunday. The 25 percent credit applies to Neighbor Islands. On Oahu, the credit is 20 percent . The Maui News apologizes for the error.