Hollywood Tax Credits? The Shows Are On The Road

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If you were paralyzed with shock at the October $700 billion dollar Congressional bailout, you may have missed the inclusion of a $478 million-fine-print allotment to Hollywood for tax incentives. A month later, in the midst of California’s on-going fiscal crisis, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed something called ‘the runaway production provision’, to utilize the bailout incentives to keep entertainment production in California and stimulate investment in motion pictures here. The proposal allows production companies to claim a $15 million deduction per California movie during the first year of filming. The credit increases to $20 million if the company films in an economically depressed area.

Whatever your thoughts may be on the bailout in general, Hollywood is hurting, and tax incentives — especially if they don’t end up exclusively in the coffers of the major players — are long overdue. If California doesn’t protect its long-standing identity as the center of the entertainment industry, the Hollywood Sign may soon be strung across a mesa overlooking Albuquerque, or facing post-Katrina trailers. Forty states offer financial incentives to feature film and television companies; currently, California does not.

Los Angeles and the state of California have been victims of runaway production for 25 years, but with California’s shrinking economy and growing anti-business reputation, the fight to keep any of the state’s industries in place has gained importance. Roughly a quarter of a million Californians work directly in the entertainment industry, with a substantial additional segment of the state economy fueled by retail, professional services, health care, and education related to the industry workforce. Entertainment is the fifth largest industry in Southern California.

‘Runaway production’ — the popular term for motion picture and television production which moves outside the United States — and ‘production flight’ — production re-located outside of LA — mean job and economic loss for California and greater Los Angeles. Feature film production in the region has dropped by about half since its 1996 peak. By 2007, entertainment production in the region had dropped to 31%. In 2008, television production marginally increased, but the migration continued to states such as New York, New Mexico, and Louisiana, which promised better tax climates.

Here’s a rundown on who’s eating LA’s power lunches:

Big Apple’s Big Win: Last May Variety announced “Ugly Betty Bites the Big Apple”; the filming of ABC’s hit would possibly move to New York. By summer, persuaded by Governor David Paterson’s expansion of tax breaks, the move took place. It makes sense that “Ugly Betty,” a series about the New York fashion industry, is now actually shot in New York. But production designers are famously skillful at locale substitutions. The dealmaker was undoubtedly New York’s new laws that tripled the eligibility for a tax credit to 30%, with an expiration date pushed to 2013. New York City “tips” an additional 5% tax break.

New Mexico’s State Motto, Crescit Eundo: Crescit Eundo translates to “it grows as it goes,” and the New Mexico film and television industry has been growing. The program was initiated by Republican governor Gary Johnson, and was then enthusiastically supported by Democratic Governor Bill Richardson. The state recently celebrated the 100th film to collect its 25% rebate through state tax incentives.

“No Country for Old Men,” the 2007 Best Picture Oscar-winner, was based on a Cormac McCarthy novel set in Texas that used Texas as a metaphor for a changing America. But it was shot in New Mexico. The AMC series “Breaking Bad,” the feature “Terminator Salvation,” the sequel to “Transformers”, and, perhaps most appropriately, a biography of Georgia O’Keefe, were all recently filmed in New Mexico.

New Mexico claims that its 25% production cost rebate has contributed to building a stable film industry: $600 million in direct spending since 2003, and an estimated $1.8 billion in financial impact as of 2007. In 2008, productions in the state generated about 142,000 days of employment, up from 25,000 in 2004. The state continues to invest in the future of its film industry by building additional studios, and Sony Pictures Imageworks will open a large post-production facility in Mesa del Sol west of Albuquerque in mid-2009.

The latest California loss to New Mexico: ReelzChannel, after laying off more than 40 employees in Los Angeles, just announced its relocation to Albuquerque.

Les Bon Temps De Roulez Rolls Over A Grand Bump: Louisiana has a history of aggressive pursuit of film and television production through tax incentives. It offers 25% (plus 10%) transferable tax credits. Jefferson parish, outside New Orleans, offers an additional 3% rebate for production with a cap of $100,000. The cap rises to $110,000 if the production office and stage are in Jefferson Parish.

The Louisiana Film Commission boasts that more than $2 billion in productions have been filmed in the state, with a direct impact of $1.48 billion for their economy. Film production almost doubled between 2005 and 2007, and film-related jobs have grown 23% per year. An estimated 65 projects were completed in 2008.

Louisiana’s figures look good, but are they real? In an accounting finesse as creative as a film plot, former Film Commissioner Mark S. Smith inflated budgets and broadly interpreted “film projects” to include the filming of music festivals, thereby bankrolling with taxpayer money almost 30% of some music festivals, handing out $10 million to festival producers. Smith pleaded guilty in 2007 to taking bribes of $65,000, and after numerous postponements is still awaiting sentencing.

Louisiana quietly closed some of the loopholes related to the actual amount of filming in the state, but the system still poses questions for Louisiana taxpayers. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is as big a Hollywood-picture-not-primarily-shot-in-Hollywood as they come. Most of the filming was done in New Orleans and Montreal, with some sound stage work in Los Angeles. It stars Brad Pitt (and the city of New Orleans), and is up for 13 Oscars, inclduing Best Picture. The film’s $167 million budget was so big and laden with special effects that it required the backing of two studios, Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Louisiana taxpayers will provide roughly $27 million of the film’s costs, as the producers who qualified for the incentives (pre-loophole-closing) ultimately cash or sell the value of their tax incentives.

Production Flight Or Production Fleece?: While Louisiana appears resolute in its determination to be the Tinseltown of the Gulf Coast, other states in the midst of budget slashing are questioning the value of tax incentives for film production in the current economy. With Detroit in a tailspin, fiscal watchdogs in the Michigan congress are looking to cap film credits, enacted in April of 2008, at $50 million. Rhode Island, smarting from paying more in incentives than was returned to the economy on a straight-to-video movie, has also tightened its production incentive laws.

The confusion and intricacy of exploring the possible tax credits, incentives, and rebates has created its own set of entrepreneurs. Producers who visit The Incentives Office can shop for film incentives in the way that a buyer or broker shops for favorable interest rates. The Incentives Office promises to help producers “maximize their production incentives,” to help states with their film incentive programs, and to assist lenders in verifying estimated rebates and tax credits. “Most effectively, we take care of the entire incentive process for producers, from choosing the right state to filing the final documents and collecting the money.” The Incentives Office is located in Santa Monica, so the incentive consulting business — if not the actual incentives — remain part of the California economy.

California is struggling with more economic fault lines than a seismic map of the state. Its flagship business, entertainment, is hoping to be re-powered by tax incentives. If the industry does succeed at closing the deal with government, the last words on the script may be “I’ll be back,” and not “Hasta la vista, baby.”

Nancy Meyer is a broadcast and cable television executive and producer. She also works in university education with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation, and is co-author of Television, Film, and Digital Media Programs published by Princeton Review/Random House.