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Movies set, but not filmed, in Washington are common. That might start changing.

A creepy doll holds 'Alice in Wonderland' and reads to a brown-haired girl sitting next to her.
Geoffrey Short
Universal Pictures
M3GAN (left) and Cady (Violet McGraw) in M3GAN, directed by Gerard Johnstone. The movie was set in Seattle but filmed in L.A. and Auckland, New Zealand.

The third-highest grossing movie of the year so far is about an artificially intelligent doll that turns murderous.

If you haven't seen M3GAN, you've probably heard of it, or at least seen people doing her creepy, campy dance on TikTok or The Drew Barrymore Show.

What you might not have heard: It's set in Seattle. Not that you can really tell. M3GAN was filmed in LA and Auckland, New Zealand.

That’s common for movies and shows in the last two decades. Studios want the aesthetics of Washington, but get more tax breaks elsewhere. Even though Washington was an early adopter of film incentives in the 2000s, it was outpaced by other states and the neighboring Canadian province, according to Amy Lillard, executive director of Washington Filmworks.

"This is really in response to that runaway production to Vancouver, B.C., that place that is right above us here in Washington state," Lillard said. As its film industry has boomed, tax breaks for film projects have cost B.C.'s government hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years.

Seattle seems like a great place to set a tech horror movie. But what about beloved local histories?

This year will also see the release of The Boys in the Boat, directed by George Clooney. It’s an adaptation of the story of the University of Washington men’s rowing team in the 1936 Olympics. The movie was filmed abroad so famous UW landmarks like the ASUW Shell House on Lake Washington will most likely be recreated with the help of digital effects.

This all could start changing. The legislature increased the state’s incentive pool. As of January, $15 million is available in tax breaks for studios.

"Oregon has about $20 million a year, Montana has 12. So Washington finally fits right in there," Lillard said. Georgia is the leading U.S. state for film tax breaks, providing an estimated $1 billion in credits in 2021 and 2022.

Now that more incentives are available, Lillard is getting more calls. Next month, season two of a show on the Christian streaming platform Pure Flix will start filming in Spokane, Wash. with Northern Exposure star Cynthia Geary.

"We can now go after some of those bigger episodic series," Lillard said. "We are now aligned with what Oregon does, who had Portlandia, The Librarians...Grimm." 

Lillard said don't expect some huge blockbuster anytime soon, though.

"We're really interested in finding the right match. We are not ever going to have Marvel movie number 17," Lillard said.

But who knows? A sequel to M3GAN is already set for release in January 2025. Maybe M3GAN 2 will be a real Seattleite — not a transplant.

Scott Greenstone started off working at his community college newspaper before interning at NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered and covering homelessness for The Seattle Times. He co-produced the “Outsiders” podcast with KNKX, which was named one of TIME’s top 10 podcasts of 2020.

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