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‘The Frozen Ground’ offers chilling portrait of dark episode

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Posted: Sunday, September 1, 2013 12:00 am

FAIRBANKS — For its $6.3 million subsidy, Alaska should have gotten more out of the “The Frozen Ground” than a premiere in Wasilla and no sign of the movie in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and other parts of the 49th state.

How about a bag of popcorn and a candy bar?

In exchange for the state subsidy, the movie makers should have been required to show the film in Alaska, where curiosity about the story of an Anchorage serial killer would have attracted people to the theaters.

But the national movie-house chains in Alaska’s major cities were probably reluctant to show the film because the movie was available for on-demand viewing the same day it appeared on the big screen in Wasilla and a small number of cities Outside.

 It was a “token theatrical run,” as a New York Post review put it, and the picture will be released on DVD Oct. 1.

In an interview earlier this summer with the Guardian newspaper in London, actor Nicolas Cage said it is a misconception that releasing a movie directly to video on demand means that it is a failure. OK, but it’s hardly a sign of a box office smash.

The movie, filmed in 2011, is a dark portrayal of a dark subject, the polar opposite of “Wild About Anchorage.” Watching this unfold, you get the sense that the sun never shines in the state’s largest city, and it is perpetually blanketed by gloom and doom.

Director Scott Walker seems to be aiming for the “Nordic noir” audience, shooting mostly at night in strip clubs and other locations with low light. The daylight scenes, which include some beautiful aerials of the Chugach Mountains, are mostly under skies of gray.

“The Frozen Ground” stars Nicholas Cage, John Cusack and Vanessa Hudgens and deals with Alaska mass murderer Robert Hansen and how he was brought to justice. The Anchorage businessman killed at least 17 young women before he was stopped.

Since it’s not on the big screen, I watched the film the other night on my computer. The movie is worth seeing, if only to find out what the state got for its $6.3 million.

I agree with the reviewers who say “The Frozen Ground” is comparable to an episode of “Law & Order” or CSI, but is nothing out of the ordinary. Cage and Cusack give compelling performances, but they are hampered by a weak script.

By moving back and forth to track the cop, the killer and the victim who got away, the movie does not glorify the murderer or make him appear larger-than-life, which is wonderful.

But this treatment also makes for a unfocused movie that is not as compelling as a detailed character study of any of those three would have been.

There are a few odd segments, such as the comment that the “coyotes are running” and a hunting trip is in order and the attempt to claim that snow flurries at Merrill Field add up to impossibly dangerous flying weather.

It is chilling to see pictures of those who suffered because of Hansen’s brutality at the end of the movie, but that’s not enough to turn this into a project that reinforces the governor’s “Choose Respect” campaign, the claim made by a state official a couple of years ago when I wrote that this project did not deserve a state subsidy.

Because it is a no-show in national theaters, the film is likely to get little attention and will not make Hansen, now 74 and serving a life prison sentence in Seward, a household name. That’s the best thing about this movie.

As with the other projects backed by the state, we don’t really know how much was spent in Alaska and how much went directly to the movie stars and the production executives.

The subsidy took the form of a transferable tax credit, which the movie company can sell to a company that pays taxes in Alaska. An LLC, the preferred structure companies use to make films here, does not have to pay state corporate income taxes.

The state paperwork lists $19.2 million as “total Alaska production expenses” for the movie, but that includes at least $10.7 million in wages and salaries to people from Outside.

Subtract the Outside payments from the total and the “Alaska production expenses” for Georgia Film Fund Five LLC are cut to about $8.5 million.

It’s also not clear how much of that $8.5 million was spent in Alaska.

The filmmakers said they spent $5 million on “services,” the details of which were not made public, $446,000 on food and lodging, $790,000 on location fees and facilities and equipment rentals and purchases, $153,000 on instate transportation, $216,000 on interstate transportation and $223,000 on other expenses.

In the personnel breakdown, the company said it had 29 people as “Alaska talent,” along with an Alaska crew of 108 and 558 extras. It said it hired 256 Alaska contractors.

Wages and salaries for the 700 Alaskans totaled $1.3 million.

Wages and salaries for the 110 actors and crew from Outside totaled $10.7 million.

The argument in favor of directing state resources to subsidize movies is that it provides a way to help develop a film industry and employment prospects. The question for the state is whether it makes sense to give up far more in tax revenue than is paid to Alaskans in salaries, resulting in a production that gets little attention.

“The Frozen Ground” is hardly the worst offender in that category. A California producer who made a minimal investment in Alaska has collected

$8 million, most of it for three new entries in the “Baby Genius” series, only one of which has been released. It also went straight to video.

I think that if this subsidy program is to continue, it should be focused on encouraging Alaska artists, which means abandoning the chase for high-profile Hollywood productions.

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