About 10 years ago, Virginia Johnson, then 37, whose work as a costume supervisor and designer for film productions had begun to take off, decided she wanted to invest in the community where she lives, so she opened the Gather Here yarn and fabric shop on Broadway in Cambridge. The business thrived, and in 2016 she moved it to Cambridge Street, in Inman Square, and expanded, adding such in-store amenities for customers as a giant Bernina Q 24 “longarm” quilter, a $20,000 machine that few home-crafts people would be able to afford — or have space for. To build the new shop, Johnson hired colleagues from the film industry to work in their offseason, December to January.
The store became a place to gather, drawing knitters, quilters, and their families on bustling weekends, providing makerspaces, offering classes and workshops, and adding vibrancy to this intersection of commercial and residential life in Cambridge. Amazingly, Gather Here has survived the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet none of it would have existed without the Massachusetts film tax credit. Johnson, used to traveling for work, says she probably wouldn’t have started Gather Here (which she owns with a partner) without the additional work created in the state by the credit — nor bought her first home or even lived in Massachusetts.
The perennially embattled film tax credit (in effect since 2007), offers credit of 25 percent of a film’s production costs and payroll and exempts films from the state’s sale tax. It covers everything from actors’ salaries to anything in the production budget, including lodging, food, and other expenses.
Now the film tax credit is once again up for debate in the Legislature. The House — under the leadership of speaker and longtime film tax credit advocate Ronald Mariano of Quincy — has voted to extend the law, eliminate the sunset clause that would cause it to expire at the end of 2022, and make it permanent. A Senate bill would give the program another four years to determine its efficacy as an economic booster and trim some of the benefits (like transferable tax credits).
The state quantifies those economic benefits based on a number of factors, including ancillary “multipliers” of increased revenue for area hotels, restaurants, and other businesses. None of this, opponents of the credit argue, comes close to justifying the cost of the program. The one data point that is always waved as a red flag is the cost of “jobs created.” In the latest report, that cost is cited as $100,000 per job.
Proponents argue that the state’s bean counters are missing a whole lot of beans. Such as: businesses created. Johnson’s Gather Here, for instance, does not service the film industry per se. And yet it would not exist without it. Nor would the “jobs created” for its pre-pandemic 21 employees, half of them full-time.
The temporary work of film production also gives people a chance to contribute to the state’s economic development in other ways. Like Johnson, maybe they start their own businesses. Or even fund their own filmmaking. Consider Adam Roffman, a set dresser and independent filmmaker who was able to help create the Independent Film Festival of Boston, which has drawn as many as 10,000 ticket buyers annually to the Brattle, Coolidge Corner, and Somerville Theatre movie houses since it was created in 2003.
Accustomed to picking up jobs in New York, Roffman found that, post-tax credit, he was able to work full-time in Boston. “I was able to spend four solid months every year getting sponsors and doing press” for the film festival, he told me.
And like Johnson, he was able to buy his first home in Massachusetts — another economic factor that doesn’t figure into the state’s audit of the benefits of film production.
Which gets to another underlying purpose of the film tax credit: to create a sustainable film industry in Massachusetts. The $40 million New England Studios production facility at the former military site of Fort Devens has been buzzing with business since it opened in 2013, including director Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-winning “Little Women.” The post-production digital effects company Zero VFX has become integral to Boston’s booming tech sector, spending more than $50 million in Massachusetts since opening in 2010, according to founder and CEO Brian Drewes.
And of course, there are tourism dollars, enhanced by the kind of promotion that ad execs can only dream of, like the 135-minute “Come to Massachusetts” ad that was “Little Women,” with its evocative scenes shot in Concord, Back Bay, the Arnold Arboretum, Crane Beach in Ipswich, and at the bucolic Trustees of Reservations estate Fruitlands in Harvard.
That’s the kind of benefit Mariano is probably talking about when he calls some benefits of the tax credit “immeasurable,” an assessment with which the state Tax Review Expenditure Commission concurs.
There are the lasting benefits to a community like Essex where, state Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante points out, the production company for Adam Sandler’s “Grown Ups” completely renovated the Centennial Grove public park, with two new basketball courts, and improvements to the park’s community building that included a new kitchen, new bathrooms, and new heating and cooling systems. “You would see what the film company paid,” Ferrante said of the state’s accounting, “but you wouldn’t see the value to the community.”
So maybe those immeasurable — or at least unmeasured — benefits are something the Senate should think about before they clip the film tax incentive’s wings.