Alaska movie premieres in Washington

[27 January 2012]

By Sean Cockerham

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

WASHINGTON — “Big Miracle,” starring Drew Barrymore, the first major production subsidized by a state of Alaska film incentive program among the most generous in the nation, premiered in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday as debate burns in Alaska over whether the program is worth the cost.

All three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, along with many of their staffers, were among those who showed up for the invite-only premier at a Georgetown theater. So did Barrymore, actress Vinessa Shaw, director Ken Kwapis, as well as producers and screenwriters of the film.

The film is a fictionalized retelling of a 1988 gray whale rescue near Barrow, Alaska, that received huge international attention. The consensus of many of those who attended Wednesday night’s premier was that they didn’t come in with very high expectations, in part because of a trailer that’s on the cornball side, but were pleasantly surprised by the movie.

It’s a sweet, feel-good movie. There are stock Alaska characters like the rabid environmentalist and the greedy oilman, but they are presented with enough nuances to keep them engaging and not just cardboard cutouts. There are funny moments and several subplots that mesh with the overall story.

The film has some overdone Hollywood bits and a cynic will find fault, but overall it’s an entertaining movie and Alaskans will get a kick out of seeing places such as the Hotel Captain Cook and people they recognize, like former KTUU reporter Megan Baldino and a clip of a young Sarah Palin as an aspiring sportscaster. Kid actor Ahmaogak Sweeney of Anchorage has a major role as the son of a Barrow whaling captain and was visibly excited as he attended the premier and walked the media gauntlet and did interviews.

Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young emerged from the movie and declared it to be “good, fun to watch.”

“I got so I didn’t like Drew Barrymore, though,” Young said, clarifying that he meant her character, a Greenpeace activist, rather than the actress herself.

“Big Miracle,” filmed in Anchorage, Barrow and Seward, was the first major movie to film entirely in Alaska under the state’s three-year-old subsidy program. The premier of the film comes as the state Legislature debates the merits of the program.

The program allows eligible movies and television shows to be reimbursed by the state of Alaska for a third of their budgets. Among the things covered are star and crew salaries, transportation, set construction and wardrobe, editing and other production costs, food and hotels.

The program has a sunset provision that means it ends in 2013 unless the Legislature decides to extend it. An effort at extension led by Anchorage Democratic Sen. Johnny Ellis stalled in the state House last year.

Skeptics in the Legislature say they want more information on what the state is paying for, and are awaiting a legislative audit of the program.

“There are a lot of questions I have, are we paying too much to the stars and not enough for Alaskans?” Anchorage Republican Rep. Craig Johnson said in an interview this week. “If it has the effect that’s touted I think it’s a wonderful thing ... but we can’t give away a dollar to make a dime.”

Other states are dialing back their film incentive programs, a fact not lost on Alaska legislators.

Figures aren’t available yet for the amount of “Big Miracle” spending that qualifies for the program. The filmmaker’s application process isn’t completed but Wanetta Ayers, director of the Alaska Division of Economic Development, said it’s in the works and will be done soon.

“It’s a back and forth process … we’re waiting for some questions to be answered,” she said.

Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich said at the “Big Miracle” premier he advocated for the film incentive program when he was mayor of Anchorage and the state is seeing economic benefits from it. Such movies also raise the profile of Alaska and help people better understand the state and the Arctic, he said.

“I hope the Legislature moves on it, I think it’s an important thing,” he said.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said it’s up to the Legislature but she likes that events from Alaska history are being shared, such as the international collaboration that went into the 1988 Barrow whale rescue. Murkowski said it also can’t be denied that the incentive program is a draw. Producers spent tens of millions of dollars shooting moves in and around Anchorage the past 15 months, with stars such as Barrymore, Ted Danson and Nicholas Cage in town, and many Alaskans working on the films.

Begich and Murkowski walked together along the “red carpet” before the movie, which was basically just the regular theater floor with the media behind a velvet rope asking questions under hot camera lights. The event drew entertainment press such as Inside Edition, as well as network television affiliates and film crews from environmental groups Oceana and Greenpeace.

Barrymore, wearing a green-white-and-black dress she said she “squeezed into,” walked the velvet rope and praised Cindy Lowry, whom she plays in the movie. Lowry was a Greenpeace representative in Alaska at the time of the whale rescue.

“The thing I respect the most about Cindy, other than her wicked awesome personality, is the fact she will cross boundaries and she will go to these theatrical and extravagant lengths to get her point across or her voice heard, but it’s always done in a very informed way, very educated, ‘I’ve stayed up all night’ studying way,” Barrymore said.

Lowry herself attended the premier and was pleased with the movie. “It’s good, really good,” she said.

Director Ken Kwapis said it was a challenging shoot, with cold weather, three large robotic whales that didn’t always work, and a large ensemble cast, including people who hadn’t been in a movie before.

“It was brutal and I loved every minute of it,” Kwapis said. “I fell in love with Anchorage, I can’t wait to go back.”

Kwapis said he fought to have the film made in Alaska and believes the state incentive program “played a very big part” in making it happen.

Producer Michael Sugar said the movie could not have been made on such a big scale in Alaska without the program. Sugar said filming in Alaska poses challenges and a lot of work needs to be done to make it a “turnkey movie destination” as the filmmakers had to create things for the production that would have been available elsewhere.

Sugar said the filmmakers had some low expectations coming in, given a lack of experience among Alaskans in working with movie crews, but were happy with how it worked out. “We were so embraced,” Sugar said.

The premier was held in Washington to benefit the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit that helps people grieving the loss of a loved one in the military. Bonnie Carroll, president of the group, lives in Anchorage and her work on the whale rescue as a then-Reagan administration aide is featured prominently in the movie.

The film opens to the general public in theaters on Feb. 3.

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