Hollywood claims chunk of your tax dollars

Noah Pransky, WTSP

TAMPA BAY, Florida– The debate over state film incentives is turning into an epic blockbuster, as Florida’s film industry fights for a lifeline from the Legislature.

Although Florida’s film resume is impressive, its supporters say the state is losing out on more and more productions because other states are offering production companies increasing incentives. And the industry is pitching hundreds of millions of dollars in new Florida-based film subsidies.

But with $296 million in state money going the industry since 2010, are private film jobs being propped up by your tax dollars?

“It is … to a certain extent, because it’s just the structure of how film and television get financed,” acknowledged St. Pete/Clearwater Film Commissioner Tony Armer.

Armer says the tax incentives convince production companies to spend money with local companies, caterers, hotels, and other businesses.

“I’m talking to several production companies and several studios … and they’re not going to come here to shoot without a tax credit,” Armer added.

He points to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s film about former USF football player Nick Schuyler as an example of missed opportunities for Florida. Armer says the film is about Florida and based in Florida, but will be shot in other states that offer tax incentives.

But economists haven’t been kind to tax incentives for film, including in one of the country’s leading providers of incentives, Louisiana. And in Florida, the state’s top analysts recently indicated the program generated only 41 cents on the dollar for Florida taxpayers.

The state of Florida report also indicated the jobs created by the incentives were low-paying, part-time extra work, and the tourism generated by the incentives was negligible.

“There’s such little impact coming from these incentive programs that we just don’t get the return on investment that they promise,” said Andres Malave with Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a political group that has “declared war” on film and stadium subsidies.

AFP, which is backed by the conservative Koch brothers, points to incentive-receiving productions such as “Magic Mike,” “Spring Breakers,” and reality TV’s “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” as examples of wasted tax dollars.

“It’s taking money that should be going to schools, real infrastructure projects, (and) public safety,” Malave said of film subsidies. “(It’s going) into an arena that quite frankly, these state legislators have no experience in.”

The money for Florida’s 2010 film incentive program was supposed to last six years, but most of the money was claimed in the first year.

Among the projects receiving the benefits:

  • Tough Love, reality series ($205,190)
  • Magic Mike, movie ($229,250)
  • Rock of Ages, movie ($6,761,291)
  • Rockabilly Zombie Weekend, movie ($40,033)
  • Basketball Wives, commercial about reality show ($41,352)
  • Step Up 4, movie ($4,496,679)
  • Spring Breakers, movie ($554,468)
  • What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, reality series ($123,812 – pending)
  • Victoria’s Secret, commercial ($119,613 – pending)
  • Wrestlemania XXVIII, sporting event ($840,000 – pending)

A number of other pilot productions that received state money were never picked up.

Other critics have also take issue with Florida laws that allow production companies to sell the tax credits they receive. This maneuver allows the production companies to cash in on tax breaks even if they don’t generate enough in tax receipts, while allowing non-film-related companies to buy the credits to reduce their own tax bill.

County incentives

Although significantly smaller than incentives from the state, county-level incentives for Hollywood productions have been easier to come by.

In 2014, the Hillsborough County Commission voted unanimously to award the Hollywood production “The Infiltrator” $250,000 in general revenue money. The incentives will guarantee the Brian Cranston film shoots in Tampa Bay for at least eight days.

Armer and the St. Pete/Clearwater Film Commission also helped line up $100,000 for Tim Burton to shoot part of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” in the region. Filming is expected to begin next week.

Sarasota County has also been active in the film industry, but its most high-profile deal has resulted in years of litigation. In a lawsuit, the county alleged Sanborn Studios failed to deliver on job promises after taking hundreds of thousands of tax dollars, but Sanborn filed a countersuit alleging the county attacked its reputation.

Regardless of individual stories of success and failure, Armer says Florida’s film industry needs the subsidies and taxpayers get return-on-investment in the form of spending in the community.

“Take a look at more than just the taxes (a production company generates)” Armer said. “Look at what these companies are spending.”

But critics – and many economists – suggest film recruitment has become a bidding war the state shouldn’t be getting into.


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