Movie Production Incentives & Film Tax Credits: Blockbuster Support for Lackluster Policy

January 14, 2010

Introduction
In the last decade, state governments have "gone Hollywood," or tried to, by enacting dozens of movie production incentives (MPIs), including tax credits for film production. Hollywood might be expected to wield influence in the California state legislature, but it is more surprising to see movie and TV executives throwing their weight around in Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, and South Carolina. All these states and most others have enacted MPIs. Those who were quickest and most generous have landed productions. Other states are left empty-handed despite having offered embarrassingly generous tax abatements to attract filmmakers.

Based on fanciful estimates of economic activity and tax revenue, states are investing in movie production projects with small returns and taking unnecessary risks with taxpayer dollars. In return, they attract mostly temporary jobs that are often transplanted from other states. States claim to boost job training with MPIs, but these tax incentives often encourage individuals to gain skills that are only employable as long as politicians enact ever larger subsidies for the film industry. Furthermore, the competition among states transfers a large portion of potential gains to the movie industry, not to local businesses or state coffers. It is unlikely that movie production incentives generate wealth in the long run. Most fail even in the short run. Yet they remain popular.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist (R), Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (D), New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (D), Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski (D), Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (D), and Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) in particular have strongly pushed for MPIs to encourage film production in their states. In California, a state that avoided offering credits until very recently, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger hopes that they will lure back productions now moving to other states. In the rare case when the executive branch rejects the use of MPIs, as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (R) did in 2008, or strongly questions them as Iowa Governor Chet Culver (D) and Rhode Island Governor Don Carcieri (R) have done recently, their concerns are overridden with resounding support from the state legislature and incentive beneficiaries.

Politicians are not alone. While the occasional letter to the editor warns otherwise, most citizens view state-funded film production in a positive light, a win-win for everyone. This report describes the various incentives that states have enacted, explains their undeserved popularity, and makes an argument for their immediate discontinuance. 

Key Findings

Forty-four states now offer significant movie production incentives (MPIs), up from five states in 2002, and twenty-eight states offer film tax credits.

In the face of state budget pressures and preposterously generous incentives in Louisiana and Michigan, states may curtail or even terminate their MPI programs. Kansas and Iowa have suspended theirs, Kansas for two years to save revenue and Iowa briefly to investigate corruption.

MPIs have often escaped routine oversight about benefits, costs and activities.

Spurious research is common in campaigns for film tax credits, often featuring dramatic job creation claims. A recent study concluded that Pennsylvania's film tax credit produces net benefits of $4.5 million by assuming that any business interacting with the film industry would not exist but for the credit. MPIs create mostly temporary positions with limited options for upward mobility.

The MPI experience demonstrates that a politically connected industry can grow if the state greatly reduces its taxes, but states should have a tax system that operates as a welcome mat to all industries, not just those politicians have picked. 

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