Massachusetts issued more than $77 million in film tax subsidies in 2019, including tens of millions of dollars to scripted television series — projects that officials have sought for years to attract to the state through its controversial tax credit program.
“Castle Rock,” the Hulu series based on the stories of Stephen King, received $13.8 million in tax credits for its first season, the highest amount issued to any single project in 2019 and the most for a scripted series since the state began releasing such tax data nine years ago.
The show was the first episodic series to be filmed in Massachusetts in nearly three decades when production began in 2017 at New England Studios in Devens and other locations, and according to an industry-backed analysis, created more than 1,000 jobs in the state.
But it’s only one of several scripted television series to collect taxpayer-funded subsidies in the years since, according to data released Friday by the Department of Revenue.
“The Society,” a since-canceled Netflix series about a New England town where everyone disappears but a group of teens, received roughly $9 million. The Showtime series “SMILF,” which ran two seasons, received at least $5.8 million. The state also issued $880,000 for an untitled “Frankie Shaw pilot” in 2019; Shaw, the creator and star of “SMILF,” grew up in Brookline and South Boston.
The state has issued more than $267 million alone since 2016 through the state’s film tax credit program, whose future is up for debate on Beacon Hill.
The credit is one of 10 different tax breaks a government commission identified in a report last month as poor investments or no longer relevant. The film tax credit, in particular, costs the state $100,000 per job created, according to the panel. And while it generated $25 million in wages for residents in 2016 — the most recent year of data available — that was less than the $35.5 million in wages that went to millionaires who don’t live in the state.
“We conclude that this is not the best use of the state’s money,” the commission’s report said.
The film tax credit’s supporters have long argued the state’s outdated analysis doesn’t fully capture the tax credit’s economic benefits, and have for years lobbied to extend the program, which is currently scheduled to end in January 2023. Speaker Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, supports the push in the House, which is scheduled to begin debate on its annual budget proposal later this month.
Letting the credit end “will be the equivalent of shutting down a couple manufacturing plants. It’s a robust, thriving industry here in Massachusetts,” said Gary Crossen, general manager of New England Studios, where two seasons of “Castle Rock” were filmed. (It’s unclear if tax credits for its second season have been issued yet.)
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the credits are working, and they have lured all of these episodic series to Massachusetts,” he said. “There is no future for the business in Massachusetts without the tax credit.”
It’s possible that the state will ultimately provide more than the $77 million in credits reported for 2019 thus far. There are often pending film tax credit applications when the state’s annual tax credit transparency report is released, meaning the totals for each year can be revised.
For example, the initial report for 2018 released last year by the Department of Revenue showed $16.2 million in credits issued. That ballooned to $51.6 million in the revised data released Friday, including with the addition of the Denzel Washington-led “Equalizer 2,” which received $20.1 million in tax credits. That amount topped the state subsidies issued to the original “Equalizer” film, which also shot in Massachusetts and got $15.5 million.
Created in 2006, the film tax program includes a 25 percent payroll credit for any project that spends more than $50,000 in-state. Productions that spend more than half their total budget in Massachusetts — or film at least half the time in the state— are also eligible for a 25 percent production credit and a sales tax exemption.
There’s no annual cap, and credits are transferable, allowing a production company to sell them to insurance companies, corporations, or even individuals.
Other television shows have long received incentives before the arrival of episodic series, including GBH-produced shows such as “Antiques Roadshow,” “Frontline,” or “Nova,” which collectively have received millions in credits over the years.
Supporters of the tax credit program have sought to eliminate or extend its looming “sunset” deadline, arguing the state could miss out on coveted scripted series that supply more consistent, long-term jobs for locals working in the entertainment industry.
The Massachusetts Production Coalition, an industry group that represents local film interests at the State House, released a report last year that said “Castle Rock” alone generated $69 million in economic activity during its first season.
Major films continue to haul in lucrative taxpayer-funded help, too. The 2019 adaption of “Little Women” — which filmed in Boston, Concord, and elsewhere in the state — received $10.1 million, while “Knives Out,” the 2019 murder mystery that filmed in 12 different Massachusetts communities, received $10 million.
“Honest Thief,” the Liam Neeson-led movie that’s set in Boston but filmed in Worcester in 2018, got $5.6 million in subsidies.