Why attracting filmmakers to Maine comes at a steep cost

By The BDN Editorial Board

“Tumbledown” is a film about a Maine widow that’s set in Maine and produced by Maine filmmakers. It sounds like the ideal feature film to be shot and produced in Maine.

Instead, Concord, Massachusetts, is the film’s stand-in for Farmington. Webb Lake in nearby Weld is played by Lost Lake of Groton, Massachusetts. The filmmakers, Desiree Van Til and Sean Mewshaw of Portland, and their crew used New England Studios of Devens, Massachusetts, for much of their production work.

It was simply so lucrative to film and produce in Massachusetts that it wouldn’t have made sense to take the work elsewhere.

Since 2006, the Bay State has offered some of the most generous film production tax incentives in the nation, and it has started to generate a reputation as “Hollywood East.” For producers of feature-length films and TV series, Massachusetts boasts a sales tax exemption as long as the production company spends at least $50,000, a credit worth 25 percent of payroll expenses, and a credit worth 25 percent of production spending as long as at least half of the production budget is spent or at least half the filming is done in Massachusetts.

If producers ran up costs of $1 million each for payroll and production, points out Boston.com’s Sara Morrison, it would qualify for $500,000 in credits, more than enough to pay down the $100,000 in tax liability. With the remaining $400,000 in credits, the company can cash them out at 90 percent of their value. Or it can sell them to another party — perhaps at 95 percent of their value — that can use the credits to pay down its tax bill. That’s what has happened with 82 percent of the credits since 2006.

Van Til and Mewshaw have pressed Maine policymakers for years to adopt film production incentives that rival Massachusetts’. Two bills pending in the Legislature this year would expand Maine’s visual media production incentive package — which currently offers offers tax rebates worth 12 percent of wages paid to Maine residentsand 10 percent paid to nonresidents who work on a Maine production on which filmmakers spend at least $75,000. Producers filming in Maine also can claim credits for production expenses and avoid lodging taxes if hotel stays exceed 28 days.

But as Maine determines whether to grow its film tax credits, Massachusetts’ generous incentives are in doubt. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed eliminating the credit and using the money instead to double a key tax credit for low-income, working people.

To be sure, the credit is responsible for making Massachusetts a filmmaking destination. But it has come at a steep cost without corresponding benefits. Between 2006 and 2012, Massachusetts issued $78.9 million in credits, working out to $118,873 spent for every new job created for a Massachusetts resident as a result of production-related activity, according to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. But the lion’s share of filming activity the credit lured to Massachusetts didn’t even benefit Massachusetts residents and their economy. Sixty-six percent of the production spending that triggered credits flowed to non-Massachusetts residents and businesses — the out-of-state companies involved in major productions and their staffs.

In 1992, Louisiana became the first state to offer an incentive package designed to lure productions. As of last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 39 states and Puerto Rico offered some form of film production incentive.

Politicians such as Baker, however, are realizing their states’ film credits come at a steep cost, produce largely temporary jobs for many nonresidents, and that the substantial state resources spent on film credits can instead be invested in proven ways to generate economic activity. In North Carolina, lawmakers last year let their state’s credit expire. In Michigan, the Republican-led House voted in March to end that state’s generous incentives. In Louisiana, the first state to take the film credit plunge, lawmakers from both parties are proposing to rein in their state’s film credits.

Maine politicians have a built-in cue for what should be their concluding line: An expanded film credit program isn’t the right move for Maine.


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