About one of every seven tourists who visit Louisiana was spurred to come here by seeing the Pelican State on the silver screen or on TV — an overlooked benefit of the state’s film tax credit program, the president of the Louisiana Film Entertainment Association said Monday.
Will French, who is also a tax-credit broker, said that when film’s impact on tourism is considered as a benefit, the widely criticized credits likely pay for themselves.
Most studies have found that the state gets back less than a quarter in tax money for every dollar it invests in the film program, which gives filmmakers tax credits equaling 30 percent of the money they spend in Louisiana.
But French said a study by the LFEA found that about 15 percent of the visitors to Louisiana had their interest sparked by what they saw in a movie or TV show.
“That is a big percentage,” he said. “It is lots of new dollars coming in.”
French made his comments to the Press Club of Baton Rouge at a time when film and other tax credits are under intense scrutiny, especially with the state facing a $1.6 billion shortfall for the financial year that begins July 1.
The state has issued tax credits worth more than $200 million in each of the past few years.
“The problem is it is hard to quantify all the benefits,” French said.
However, he said, a survey of nearly 1,500 tourists by Federated Sample of New Orleans found that 66 percent had their interest in Louisiana and its culture sparked by films and TV shows shot here, and of those, 59 percent said it affected their decision to visit the state.
French said the survey showed that 71 percent of tourists said their awareness of films and TV shows shot in the state was either very important or important in opting to visit.
Exactly how many tourism dollars can be attributed to films is still being calculated, he said.
Some other officials, including Greg Albrecht, chief economist for the Legislative Fiscal Office, have expressed skepticism that the film industry should be given credit for generating much, if any, Louisiana tourism.
The number of tourists who visited the state in 2013, the most recent year for which numbers were available, was about the same as it was when the film program was in its infancy a dozen years ago.
But French argued that the alleged tourism benefits, along with other ripple effects, offer good arguments in favor of keeping the tax credits.
“This is an industry that can be resistant to trends like the price of oil or a national recession,” he said.
State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, chairman of a legislative committee reviewing the credits, said Monday that he could not respond to any poll findings.
Morrell said his panel is looking for ways to make film credits more transparent and predictable.
“It is hard to pull out and draw inferences from the poll,” he said.
Action on tax credits may be on the agenda for the 2015 Legislature, which begins April 13.
French said that while film tax credits account for just 2 percent of the state’s total corporate tax incentive mix, they attract 90 percent of the interest.
In part, that’s because the program has suffered from corruption.
Just last week, the state was directed to issue $6.5 million in tax credits to a lawyer who recently got out of prison after bribing the official who oversaw the film program.
And WVUE-TV recently reported on yet another film whose producers may have received tax credits far in excess of what they were entitled to.
But French downplayed the problems in the state’s film program, suggesting that the bugs have been worked out after some early hiccups.
“A lot of what you see in the press happened a long time ago,” he said.
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.