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News / Business / Clark County Business

Vancouver Filmworks founder hopes to make region a filmmaking mecca

By Robert Burdick , for The Columbian
Published: March 20, 2016, 6:06am

Jeff Waters says Vancouver and Southwest Washington can become a center for film production and a laboratory for vocational and artistic training in filmmaking. He is trying to achieve these goals through Vancouver Filmworks, a nonprofit motion-picture production company he founded here in 2013.

An entrepreneur who has built successful main-street businesses (Achates Security in Salinas, Calif., and Aegis Cleaning Service in Vancouver), Waters also possesses a deeply creative spirit. His colorful, if not bumpy, history as a film writer and director is buttressed by a bachelor’s degree in film from California State University Monterey Bay in Seaside, Calif.

Mostly self-financed, Waters has been working steadily since 2014 to realize his dream that Vancouver Filmworks, funded by local and national investors and assisted by Hollywood professionals and local civic leaders, can put Vancouver on the film map.

Jeanne Kojis, executive director of the Nonprofit Network of Southwest Washington, says she has worked with Waters since 2014. Initially, she introduced him to Max Ault, director of business growth and development at the Columbia River Economic Development Council, “because I knew Max would get what he was trying to do … pull things together on a much larger basis than we usually see in nonprofit startups.”

2016 Filmmaker Gala

Vancouver Filmworks is kicking off its first major fundraising drive by sponsoring the 2016 Filmmaker Gala from 7 to 11 p.m. April 9 at Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

• Keynote speaker Peter Kuran, founder of Visual Concept Entertainment, has been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a Scientific and Technical Achievement Award for pioneering work in visual film restoration. He started in feature films as an animator at age 19 working on George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” and has worked on more than 350 theatrical motion pictures including “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “The Addams Family” movies, the “Robocop” series, “X-Men 2,” “Men in Black,” “Thirteen Days” and “The Last Samurai.”

• Colin Michael Kitchens began his film career working as an assistant editor with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola in the 1970s. His film credits include “Apocalypse Now,” “The Black Stallion,” “The Godfather II,” “Never Cry Wolf,” “Village of the Damned” and “James and the Giant Peach.”

• Tickets are $75 for 8 p.m. general admission to the movie; $100 for the catered pre-movie activities beginning at 7 p.m. No tickets will be sold the day of the event. For event and ticket information, visit https://2016filmmakergala.eventbrite.com

She connected him with Jeanne Bennett, CEO of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, who can assist Waters in creating jobs.

These and other local civic leaders have acknowledged the potential of the project, but broader community involvement will be needed, Kojis cautions.

“Starting a creative process is not like a creating a standard business plan in which you have a road map that takes you where you want to go,” Kojis said. “He needs people who want to help build the vision and get on board for the journey. He’s offering an opportunity that could be pretty great for us. It’s just up to people to support it.”

A unique and key element of Waters’ vision for the nonprofit company is to recruit and develop the talent of young people from Southwest Washington who want to pursue careers as special-effects technicians, editors, lighting professionals, sound technicians, costume designers, set designers and many other careers in motion picture arts and sciences.

To this end, Waters is scouting potential locations for a temporary production facility to house a sound stage and a full complement of film production equipment for use as a teaching laboratory and to begin producing films.

He is also engaged — ambitiously — in raising more than $2.5 million to produce “Evil,” the company’s first major film, a project he said he hopes will be ready for preproduction later this spring. He said he has commitments for a substantial portion of this funding and is optimistic he will garner the additional letters of intent needed soon.

In addition, to introduce Vancouver Filmworks to the community, he and a core staff of volunteers have organized its first major fundraising drive: the 2016 Filmmaker Gala, set for April 9 at the Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver.

The black-tie event will feature presentations by and discussions with veteran Hollywood filmmakers who are working with the fledgling company and a screening of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” a 1992 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Deep, creative roots

Waters is no stranger to showmanship. His creative roots run deep into his childhood in Salinas, where he developed an interest in storytelling and movie making while watching hundreds of movies and immersing himself in role-playing games.

Following high school, he took his interest in live-action role-playing games to the next level by writing and self-publishing a role-playing game book, “Cyberworld,” that eventually sold 11,000 copies. In the next several years, he then created three additional game systems.

In his mid-20s, he wrote his first screenplay, “The Nephilim,” a high-concept supernatural thriller, and his life took a sharp turn. A friend sent a copy of the script to a producer and venture capitalist who was working with a group of high-tech business investors in Texas.

“This was in the latter part of the 1990s, when the independent film movement was reaching its peak,” Waters said.

With investor dollars flowing freely toward all kinds of new startups, many young people found themselves riding the bubble, he said. Waters was among them.

Somewhat incredibly, he was hired by the producer to direct the movie, although he had no experience in film production or directing. He describes himself as a “brash, young man” during that time. Waters worked nonstop, recruiting experienced film professionals, casting and reading book after book on directing and film production.

He was riding high, receiving big monthly checks for his work. But the project fell apart shortly after preproduction was completed when the producer defaulted and investors pulled out. Waters retained the rights to his screenplay, but the experience taught him just how tough the movie business can be.

“In a few months, I went from the idea that I was going to be a millionaire and have a high-profile career in the film industry back to being a person who had had some success at business and needed to make a living like everyone else,” he said.

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Key industry contacts

Despite his disappointment, Waters said he made good friends and contacts while working on “The Nephilim.” Some of those people are still advising him today. One, Colin Michael Kitchens, an assistant editor on “Star Wars” with a long list of major movie credits, has served as a mentor over the years. After the film experience, Kitchens inspired him to go to back to college and complete a film degree at California State University Monterey Bay, which he did in December 2002, Waters said.

But even with his degree, a film career proved elusive. The birth of his second son, Leif, in 2002 (his first son, Daerius, had been born in 1999, the year after the film tanked) and the need to make a living for his growing family led him back to the world of business and away from the more speculative world of Hollywood.

In 2003, he headed to Salinas, took over a small security firm, Achates Security, owned by his family and spent the next four years making the business highly profitable, he said.

“I decided to put the film business on hold, so I could participate in my sons’ lives,” he said.

In 2007, divorce, family squabbles about the business and Waters’ concern that Salinas was not a positive environment for raising children motivated his move to Vancouver with his sons, Waters said. Subsequently, he started Aegis Cleaning.

“I had friends in Portland I visited frequently, but after I did some research, I realized Vancouver had better schools and offered more advantages for someone starting a business.”

For a time, filmmaking remained in the background, a distant possibility. That changed after he remarried in 2010 and had a daughter, Maija, in 2013.

“I had an eight-year plan to get back into filmmaking after my second son turned 10,” Waters said. “But when we had Maija in 2013, I decided that I couldn’t put it off any longer. At some point, you have to start living your dream.”

Launching Filmworks

Putting together the people and money to start Vancouver Filmworks has occupied most of his time since 2014, Waters said. He’s still running Aegis, a duct- and carpet-cleaning company, but plans to turn more of the work over to his eldest son, Daerius, who will graduate from high school in 2017.

Building a marketing base among civic and business leaders who can help the project go forward, meeting with key decision-makers, searching for a temporary home for a local production facility, attracting volunteers and potential longer-term staff, and finding capital to support Filmworks’ first motion picture production are time-consuming activities, Waters has found.

He is particularly intent on raising awareness among potential investors about federal tax incentives that provide up to a 100 percent tax write-off for those investing in qualified film projects. Washington incentives also are available through the state’s Motion Picture Competitiveness Program, which offers rebates to film companies that meet in-state hiring quotas.

Waters said local investors often become involved in film productions, not so much to earn large returns but as a way of giving back to their communities by supporting projects that benefit the local economy and further arts education. Spreading this word is a primary reason behind the Filmworks Gala, he said.

For potential investors, the gala will offer the chance to hold in-depth conversations about tax incentives and film production with industry experts who are working with the company and who will be making presentations at the event.

Waters said he is especially enthusiastic about the potential for creating a film institute that provides hands-on training and mentorship for Southwest Washington students interested in film careers. As the company begins to produce more movies, talented students will be offered jobs at Motion Picture Editors Guild-scale wages, furthering their chances of gaining permanent employment, he said.

Too many young people get film degrees from colleges and universities, and then spend years working in what are essentially routine support jobs waiting for a break, Water said. Those who achieve guild certification in a particular discipline have a much greater opportunity to gain employment quickly, he said.

Waters recognizes that Vancouver Filmworks is a gamble, to be sure. Asked what he thinks his chances of success are, however, he remains upbeat.

“If innovators never took chances and gambled, we’d still be reading this article by candlelight,” he said.