Zurik: The $5 million show that wasn’t

Updated: Aug. 14, 2015 at 4:26 PM CDT
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Jason Sciavicco, owner of Horizon Entertainment
Jason Sciavicco, owner of Horizon Entertainment
Louisiana Entertainment Executive Director Chris Stelly
Louisiana Entertainment Executive Director Chris Stelly

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Video editor John Beyer had some raw reaction to our findings about your tax dollars, handed over for a reality TV show about the Saintsations, the Saints dance team.

"That's amazing," he tells us. "I'm flabbergasted, obviously."

The producer of that show, Horizon Entertainment, and owner Jason Sciavicco received $1 million in state film tax credits for the multi-million dollar production. They said that the production for "Saintsational" cost $5 million.

"Jeez… If only they had been that imaginative with their projects," Beyer says.

Horizon submitted records to the state to justify the $5 million spending. They detailed all of the expenses that went into the show. And they received tax credits for everything spent in Louisiana.

"I don't even think a quarter of a million was spent," Beyer says.

We reviewed the $5 million of spending with Beyer, who worked on the show as a video editor. "There were three editors going on it for a good, solid… I'd say two to four weeks, tops," he recalls.

But records show a total of six: three editors, three assistant editors, working not four but 30 weeks. Horizon claimed to the state that they paid editors and assistant editors about $318,000 for this project.

📷"If we had made that money, we'd probably be driving a Benz right now," says Beyer, whose current vehicle is a Scion.

Horizon says it spent $225,000 renting HD editing suites. Remember: Beyer says they edited for four weeks, tops. But records show Horizon rented five Avid Nitris edit systems for 30 weeks each.

According to Beyer, the editors used no more than three edit systems at one time, all running Final Cut Pro 7 editing software. He insists they never ran five systems and didn't use Avid systems.

"I can only say I disagree," Bayer says. "I was one of the head editors and I never once touched an Avid system."

This TV station, WVUE, shared video with Horizon. Horizon was one of a couple of tenants operating out of this building. We worked on several projects together, including the Saints Super Bowl parade.

The company rented six cameras, 30 weeks for each one. But the show credits themselves list only three camera operators.

The Saintsations tell us Horizon had cameras at their 2009 auditions, a few practices, games, and that was basically it. That raises the question why Horizon needed six cameras for 30 weeks.

The Saints had no part in this production, no part in submitting any paperwork to the state, and received no tax credits for this. The only connection is the fact that "Saintsational" was the show used for Horizon to get tax credits.

For weeks, we've reached out to Horizon Entertainment and its owner, Jason Sciavicco for a comment. They failed to respond until late Wednesday night.

Horizon's attorney, Walter Becker, tells us Horizon did nothing improper. Becker also says Horizon split the proceeds of the tax credits with Louisiana Media Company.

But information provided by Louisiana Media Company says that is not true, that they received no proceeds from the "Saintsational" tax credits. And documents submitted to the state show only Horizon and Jason Sciavicco's name on the records.

In 2009, Sciavicco's attorney emailed the state, stating that "Saintsational" would be "a 6-part series that will air on the NFL Network." But an NFL Network spokesperson told us by email, "I can't find anyone who knows about it. And if it had gotten anything close to serious, then our exec producer would have heard about it."

"That's what the email says, 'This is a six-part series that will air on the NFL Network,' yes," says Chris Stelly, executive director of the Office of Entertainment Industry Development. "Now whether or not it aired… I'm not sure it aired."

It never aired. And no one at the NFL Network has any recollection of the show. "OK, that's interesting," Stelly responds.

So the state thought Horizon planned six episodes. The price per episode came out to $836,346. But in reality, Beyer and other Horizon sources tell us they edited three episodes only – making the price $1,672,693 an episode. Compare that to another reality TV show, "Duck Dynasty," where season one cost $293,525 an episode.

The expenditures apparently didn't raise any eyebrows at Louisiana Entertainment. "That what was presented to us in the audit," Stelly says. "Again, this is at a period and time, I don't recall what was going on."

📷But there's more. One of the Horizon expenditures was for rental of a massive machine called a jib camera. Anyone familiar with film or TV production can spot when this type of camera is used.We viewed episodes of "Saintsational" and couldn't find one shot used with this jib camera.

Editor John Beyer doesn't recall any jib shots in the production, either. But Horizon said it rented a jib camera for $111,600 – for just over two months.

Think of it this way. The state pays out 30 percent in tax credits for each Louisiana expense. So that single jib camera rental cost taxpayers $33,400. Here at FOX 8, we bought a jib camera for $50,000. Horizon paid double that price to rent one for 62 days.

Horizon's jib operator told us by phone he worked just one day for "Saintsational" and was paid just $300.The biggest outlier may be videotapes purchased. Horizon claims it spent $8,000 on what's called Digibeta tape.

"The Digibeta tape stock, we only needed one tape for the master," Beyer tells us. "One, maybe two… Not 8,000 dollars' worth of tape stock used on that, I can assure you."

A Digibeta tape costs about $20.

And Horizon says it paid $2,500 for one MiniDV tape. We found a pack of 10 MiniDV tapes online, selling for $60.

Horizon also says it used a third tape format called DVCPRO. "I can't imagine that we looked at more than 20 to 30 of those tapes, tops," Beyer says of the DVCPRO stock.

Horizon claims it spent $55,000 on DVCPRO Pro tapes, a total of 2,200 tapes, for a six-episode show that actually ended up consisting of three episodes.

While the numbers reported on Horizon's reports surprise Beyer, the head of the film office simply responded, “I'm not certain how many tapes would be needed for a particular show, I'm sorry.”

At FOX 8, which produces nine hours of news each weekday, the newsroom budget for such tapes is just $5,000.

All totaled, Horizon told the state it spent $65,500 on tape."Again, that's what was presented to us at that point in time," Stelly says.

"It would have taken us… as long as it took us to put together, it would have taken us that long to even look at half that much tape stock, if they had used it all," Beyer says. "It is impossible, mathematically impossible."

📷Horizon got tax credits for renting "additional tape machines," including seven machines for those DVCPRO tapes. That's seven machines or tape decks, rented for 30 weeks, at a reported cost of $189,000. When we ask Beyer about them, he says, "I don't know that we had more than one."

Horizon says they paid $45,000 for 15 terabytes of additional computer storage. "No, we didn't need any additional storage," Beyer says. "There wasn't enough coverage."

Another $23,000 went to closed captioning for 10 episodes; Beyer says they never did it. We couldn't find it on the DVD we viewed, either. And remember, they only edited three episodes.

"The whole thing is questionable," says Patrick Lynch, a certified public accountant who reviewed our findings.

Lynch says the audit approved by the state is full of holes. The state mostly dodged our questions about it. "That's what's presented in the audit," Stelly repeats.

Horizon hired auditor Clint Mock from Baton Rouge. His audit of a $5 million project landed Horizon and Jason Sciavicco a $1 million payday, for a production that insiders say couldn't have cost more $250,000. He never responded to our email.

We asked Sciavicco for proof of receipts for such things as the jib camera rental, and a list of his employees and their pay. He hasn't provided that documentation.

"We worked really hard to make sense of what little we had," Beyer says. "So in some ways, it was a little miracle. But when cast in the spotlight of that budget, it's just… It's absurd. No matter how crafty and good we were with what we put together, it wasn't good enough to show anyone to convince that it was a $5 million budget or whatever. That's crazy… Those numbers are completely and totally not rooted in any kind of reality, much less reality TV."

Louisiana Media Company, which owns WVUE/FOX 8 TV, had a working relationship with Horizon Entertainment. Louisiana Media severed ties with Horizon. Spokesman Greg Bensel said,

"When we purchased WVUE Fox 8 - we did so with the notion that we would endeavor to make it the best television station in the market - couple that with the burgeoning film industry in New Orleans, it was a natural fit to consider the assets we had with the TV station, the potential programming opportunities and a physical plant that could support film production. Our partnership with Horizon was twofold, we could bring yet another company to New Orleans and let them provide the film production capabilities at Fox 8. After a short time, we decided that the speculative nature of the film industry and creating content was not in our best business interest and decided to end our relationship with Horizon and reallocate our investment in WVUE directly. Those investments, even after we decided to sever our relationship with Horizon, that provide services to the film industry at Fox 8 are still available and are currently being employed by station and Raycom today."

As for "Saintsational" itself, the New Orleans Saints released this short statement: "With regard to the Saintsation show - the nature of the show was just not conducive with the way we prefer our dance team to be represented and decided against it."

Horizon received its tax credits from the state in February 2011. Records show Horizon transferred those credits to other companies in March 2011. Normally when that's done, the companies pay for the credits. The state says they typically sell for 80-90 percent of their value. If that's true then, in late March 2011, Horizon received as much as $989,979.14 for the credits earned on "Saintsational."

Horizon had to file an audit with the state to receive tax credits. That audit is split up into Louisiana and non-Louisiana expenditures. Those expenditures combined total $5 million. Only the Louisiana spending qualifies for tax credits. But in this case, the non-Louisiana expenditures did figure into some of the credits Horizon received. To read more about that, click here for a web exclusive story.

Horizon created a shell company, TSS Productions. That shell company leased equipment and personnel from Horizon, and then submitted that information in an audit to the state for tax credits. You can read more about these shell companies and how they're tied to another Horizon production at this link.

We want to make one thing clear. John Beyer, who we interviewed, is a big supporter of the tax incentives and contributed to the Kickstarter campaign to keep it going. He is just raising questions about Horizon's dealings with the incentives.

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