Film credits: State weighs lost dollars against art

Ken Stickney

For Suzanne Chambliss, House Bill 276 was more than a matter of how to spend state dollars.

It’s a matter of where she lives and works and expresses her creativity.

Chambliss, who earned a doctorate at LSU in theater history, dramatic theory and criticism in 2012, is vice president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, AFL-CIO, Local 478. She moved to Louisiana from New York in 2003, bought a house and moved her parents south.

She moved from the theater side of the creative business to film in 2007 and has never looked back. She said she has worked all over the state — New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport — designing costumes for films .

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked in the swamps,” she said.

But Chambliss played a different role at the State Capitol last week, when she was passing out cards and shepherding union members and film enthusiasts to the House Ways and Means Committee meeting, where Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, sponsored HB 276 to trim back next year to $130 million and end by 2019 the generous credits to the film industry. Harris wore the black hat in this drama, but he made some points about fiscal responsibility. The credits have been coming in greater amounts for a long time, he said; when will the film industry stand on its own in Louisiana?

Credits that started at $40 million in 2002 eclipsed $200 million in 2014. Where does that stop?

And yes, art has intrinsic value not easily measured. But facing a $1.6 billion deficit, shouldn’t the state be measuring with some serious intent?

As this session continues, credits for film may be weighed against the pending danger to the well-being of the state universities. Can we fund them both? Either? Neither?

Chambliss said those state credits keep the film crews working around the state. Take those away, she said, and the industry will pack up for the next state that offers better incentives. They are packing up and leaving California now, witnesses said.

Union members and film supporters were supportive of HB 829 by State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, which would cap the credits program at $226 million. Robideaux said his bill is not perfect, but it would be aimed at developing Louisiana companies and “indigenous filmmakers.” It would also “give us fiscal predictability”; breaks have soared over the past dozen years for the film industry, and, with Louisiana facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall this year, money must come from somewhere.

In the end, Ways and Means OK’d three bills with various caps — $226 million, $200 million and $150 million. It’s tough to turn away struggling artists, some with enormous talents, and who could resist the star power that lined up in favor of credits, including representatives of Oscar-winng Moonbot from Shreveport? The conversation will continue.

That’s how it was in Week No. 3 of the Legislature, where the shadow of budget disaster looms over the Capitol. It will all get sorted out later, one might suppose. In fact, it must.

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