Gordon Russell’s well-researched and balanced account of the state’s film tax credit policy will evoke the regular critiques — see Adam Knapp and Michael Hecht’s response — but film policy remains a sort of insider baseball to most people. What is important to keep in mind is that both sides are right and both are missing the point.
From a purely cash-in/cash-out perspective, film tax policy produces a negative balance. In any given year, the state pays more per film job than most local workers actually see in their paychecks. This is because the payout is based on a mean average and the highest-paid actors, directors, even technicians do not reside in the state. This alone implies that Louisiana is wasting tax money.
From an economic development perspective, however, film tax policy spends money now to make more money later. The vision relies on a series of projections that both multiply the numbers of workers impacted by film production and then extends those into the future. Advocates of film tax policy tend to count the truck drivers, caterers and even service workers who presumably see a boost in their bottom line because there are more film crews in town. They are right to the degree their equations pan out.
Both sides, however, avoid two key issues that keep citizens ambivalent about the politics of film production.
The first issue is that film tax policy is a way to funnel public money toward the already rich. As Russell points out, Louisiana film tax credits are traded as commodities. This provides a new market for wealthy taxpayers to get a break since the threshold for buying a film tax credit is higher than what average people owe. In addition, the state-backed guarantee for investors encourages producers to hedge their bets, financing as many projects as possible with the knowledge that many of those films will be utter failures. This form of slate financing makes film incentives a favorite among already entitled hedge fund buyers who profit whether or not the state builds a film economy.
The second issue is that film policy drives real estate development. Film tax policy injects new market value into properties that otherwise are worthless. Recent scandals have focused on speculators who have used film tax credits to renovate their mansions, but there also are real estate agents and developers who are making legitimate money exploiting real estate prices that are comparatively low by California and New York standards. The bubble in home values relies on the ongoing public subsidy to inflate values to match migrants’ expectations. That has been perplexing to local residents who have seen the basic cost of living skyrocket while their incomes remain stagnant. Locals are frequently left with the choice of catering to the itinerant film crews through their own risky entrepreneurialism.
Note that neither of these issues has much to do with the films themselves or the jobs associated with making them.
While film policy does not create hedge funds and housing bubbles by themselves, the new capital that the tax breaks generate and then release into already unregulated markets are the most lucrative aspects of the subsidies. They also happen to address things that the average middle-class citizen cares about, such as equality, transparency and costs. Perhaps if these were the subjects for debating film tax incentives, Louisianans would be stirred to care more.
Vicki Mayer is professor of social innovation and social entrepreneurship at Tulane University and editor of the international research journal Television & New Media.