Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Carnival is Leaving Town

By Tom Inglesby

"Carnival Bokeh" by Ocean.
One of the big reasons certain states, and even cities, seem to get a lot of film work is that they want it. Like the old cliché goes, they want it so bad they can taste it. But for the past few years, that taste has been getting more and more bitter. Of course, the reason is another cliché: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

When we read the employment statistics each month, the unemployment rate seems to go down and the new jobs number seems to go up. The economy is improving, the government says, but slowly. Some industries are still under the employment levels of 2008, before the most recent downturn — what some refer to as the "Lesser Depression" or the "Great Recession." What you find if you dig down into the numbers is that private employment is slowly improving while public employment is decreasing. The "Small Government" mantra has taken hold.

One aspect of this is an unwillingness to fund new programs and, in some cases, existing programs that have shown good results. The impact for the film industry shows up in cancelled incentive programs. States and cities that compete for productions, where they offer great locations and a good talent pool, have been using incentives as a sweetener. Now some are getting that bitter, no funds available taste. It ain’t sweet, that’s for sure.

“It’s ironic,” recalls Jeanne Corcoran, “when I left the Nevada Film Office after a decade there, we had already experienced several years of the production community clamoring for ‘incentives,’ but the legislature there wasn’t in the least interested in joining that parade.” Corcoran left there to accept the position as Sarasota County, Fla., film commissioner.  “I was delighted to see that Florida had an incentive program. However, in the years since, it has been a roller coaster ride as Florida’s program has dipped and soared, from $25 million to $10 million to a low of $3 million in a cash program, to a whopping 5-year program of $292 million in tax credits in place 2010 thru 2015.”

Unfortunately, that fund actually ran down to zero available tax credits in 2012. “Now, even Nevada has joined the incentives carnival,” Corcoran sighs. “We’re somewhat like midway barkers, trying to draw the folks to our booth, we have to yell louder than the competition with more prizes and giveaways than the booth next door.”

The Florida legislature, which meets for 60 days each year, left town before agreeing on funding for the next cycle. As Corcoran says, “We were blindsided and brokenhearted by the collapse of the House/Senate efforts to find common ground and companion wording for a pair of bills, resulting in a second year in a row of zero dollars being infused into the state’s existing tax credit incentive program. We are, in effect, trying to sell from an empty wagon on a statewide level.”

It’s not easy to overcome a deficit in funding of that kind. But cities like Sarasota are scrambling to find ways — and funds — to keep attracting productions, knowing those projects infuse money into their economies. As Corcoran admits, “When the ‘box’ is empty, it is definitely time to think outside the box. In Sarasota County, we are rolling up our sleeves and putting the innovation to work to dig up creative solutions to bolster and strengthen our local cash rebate incentive, to continue to draw projects and productions our way. I assume other regions in Florida are brainstorming solutions for ways to fill the void left by lack of film, television and entertainment tax credit dollars.”

This is going to be a frustrating period for Florida cities and counties, but they are not alone. The economics of tax incentives for productions doesn’t seem to be as high a priority for some cities and states as building a multi-million dollar stadium in hopes of getting a new football team. The tax dollars spent on stadiums, collected from the locals, line the pockets of a privileged few. Tax incentives for film and TV productions can result in hundreds of people working, putting those tax dollars back in the system. Seems like a no-brainer, but then again, these are politicians were talking about.

“Now is the time for bold and new offensive strategies, not defensively hunkering down in fear after the defeat of our state’s incentive replenishment efforts,” Corcoran says as she rolls up her virtual sleeves and starts making telephone calls.