When “Ted” topped Variety’s weekly box-office chart recently, it became the eighth Massachusetts-made movie to do so in the past five years.
Why is that important? Because growing a local film industry not only creates jobs, but also projects Massachusetts into the national and international consciousness like nothing else can. Tourism is the Commonwealth’s third-largest employer. Every year the state spends millions of taxpayer dollars to attract visitors and their money. But when Sandra Bullock was on national television describing her time working here, it cost the state nothing.
“We were in Rockport, Massachusetts,” she told Regis Philbin. “Isn’t that beautiful? One of the most stunning places . . . if you have not been. One of the most beautiful, historic landscapes that I have ever been around.”
If Sandra Bullock were endorsing perfume, it would have cost the manufacturer several million dollars, including the airtime.
She wasn’t alone. Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Adam Sandler, Kate Hudson, and Anne Hathaway all spent significant chunks of their press tours singing the praises of Boston, Worcester, Essex, Salem, and Plymouth.
Last year, advertisers spent $1.7 million for every 30-second spot during the Oscar telecast. At that rate, I calculated that Christian Bale used about $3 million worth of national airtime to share his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor with Massachusetts by thanking, “Mark Wahlberg . . . Everybody in Lowell . . . Dicky and Micky! You’re the best! . . . I can’t wait to see the next chapter of his story.”
Indeed “The Fighter,” the story of boxers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, was just one of three Massachusetts-made films (including “The Town” and “The Social Network”) nominated for a total of 16 Academy Awards — in the same year!
When you think about the Massachusetts film tax credit in those terms, you begin to realize that its value is much greater than the $25,000 spent at Sean Harmon’s hardware store in Lowell, or the $100,000 spent to renovate the town-owned cottage at Centennial Grove in Essex, or even the half-million dollars that Tom Cruise paid in Massachusetts state income taxes for the two months he worked here.
It’s more than the 6,154 new jobs created in the middle of a crippling recession, more than the billion dollars of new spending that came pouring into the state’s private economy. The film tax incentive was signed into law by a Republican governor, and later expanded by a Democrat. Because, politics aside, it works.
So the next time you hear somebody criticizing this particular program as “corporate welfare,” remind them that corporate welfare is when Evergreen Solar skips town after pocketing $58 million in state assistance, or when Fidelity Investments receives $136 million in tax credits for the mutual fund industry and then says “thank you” by shipping 1,100 Massachusetts jobs out of state.
Movie companies get their tax credits the old-fashioned way. They earn them. Producers can’t even receive a tax credit until after they hire people and after they spend their money here, not before. Tax breaks based upon empty promises are corporate welfare. A tax break based on proven performance is economic development — a very big difference.
There are many ways to measure the cost of film tax credits. But few have described their benefits better than Scott Plath, the owner of Cobblestone’s Restaurant in Lowell. “For our community to be respected,” he said, “and to be sought after by major motion pictures and by movie stars and directors and producers coming to our city to do their work . . . I can’t imagine what would have a bigger impact. What could create better press and more favorable light than the big screen?”