Metro

Supporters of controversial Mass. film tax credit aim to make it permanent

Mark Wahlberg on the set of the 2016 film “Patriots Day.”
Karen Ballard/CBS Films
Mark Wahlberg on the set of the 2016 film “Patriots Day.”

Supporters of the state’s film tax subsidy have spent years defending it as an economic boost to local industry, protecting it from an early death amid criticisms the benefits are not worth the cost. Now, its backers are throwing their energy toward a new front: keeping it alive forever.

As the controversial program inches toward its January 2023 expiration, advocates warn the looming deadline could hamstring the state’s ability to attract coveted episodic series and the more consistent, long-term source of jobs they offer locals in the entertainment industry.

It has prodded movement on Beacon Hill, where more than 100 lawmakers have co-signed one of the proposals to eliminate the tax credit program’s sunset clause. And unlike in past years, when its supporters mostly played defense against efforts to scale back or nix one of the country’s more generous incentive programs, industry advocates are now mobilizing for a more proactive fight to keep it in play.

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“The legislation is a bit more of an offensive move,” said Taryn Walsh, 55, a costumer from Arlington who has worked on films such as “The Equalizer 2” and “Patriots Day” as well as on the Showtime series “SMILF.”

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“It makes us nervous that productions are going to look at that [sunset clause] and say, ‘There’s the end game,’” Walsh said. “Maybe you don’t go to Massachusetts. Maybe you don’t take a chance on having that credit go away.”

Frankie Shaw as Bridgette Bird in “SMILF.”
Claire Folger/SHOWTIME
Frankie Shaw as Bridgette Bird in “SMILF.”

The efforts could spark anew a debate that’s raged in the State House for years.

Critics have included Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican who has twice tried to scale the program back unsuccessfully, and more liberal members of the state Senate who argue the millions the credit gives back to Hollywood filmmakers would be better spent elsewhere.

State data have shown that for every $1 spent in credits, the incentives have generated only 14 cents in offsetting tax revenue.

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The program, active since 2006, includes a 25 percent payroll credit for any project that spends more than $50,000 in the state. Productions that spend more than half their total budget in Massachusetts — or film at least half of the time in the state— are also eligible for a 25 percent production credit and a sales tax exemption.

There’s no annual cap on the credit, and it’s transferable, allowing a production company to sell it to insurance companies, other corporations, or even individuals.

The state issued nearly $90 million in subsidies in 2016, the most since the state began releasing so-called tax credit transparency reports seven years ago.

When the Legislature passed a bill in 2005 to establish the program, it intended for it to end in 2013. But less than two years later, legislators rewrote the law to make it more attractive, including delaying its sunset by a decade, until January 2023.

Extending it in perpetuity, however, could buck the trends nationally. Lawmakers have largely moved to eliminate or pare back film tax incentives since 2009, when as many as 44 states offered some form of film and television production incentives, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2018, just 31 states did.

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Often, those included smaller programs that faded out with little fanfare, said Michael Thom, a University of Southern California public policy professor who studies film tax incentives. North Carolina did eliminate its sunset date in 2017, but it has been more common for supportive lawmakers to extend, but not outright remove, the expiration.

“It doesn’t really solve anything. It pushes the problem to some future legislature,” said Thom, adding that most state data, including in Massachusetts, show it’s a poor investment. “I think the sunset date should be this year. By the state’s own estimation, this is not a good use of money.”

The program’s supporters, which have included the House leadership, have criticized the state reports, arguing that they fail to capture the full extent of the economic activity the program creates.

Gary Crossen, general manager for New England Studios in Devens, said the program is also beginning to attract series to Massachusetts, where his $35 million facility has hosted three streaming productions since 2017.

That includes Hulu’s “Castle Rock,” which returned in recent weeks to begin work on a second season, he said.

“That’s reoccurring business, employing the same people,” Crossen said. “The sunset provision hasn’t been much of a discussion until now. And I think it’s a discussion now because the industry is maturing here in Massachusetts.”

The Massachusetts Production Coalition, an industry group that represents local film interests at the State House, wrote to its members last month, urging them to get behind bills filed by state Senator Michael O. Moore and Representative Tackey Chan.

“This will be a major policy effort different from the kinds of proposals we’ve experienced in the past,” the group wrote.

Moore, a Millbury Democrat, cautioned that Beacon Hill’s notoriously slow gears means this year is likely to be the start — not the end — of a push to extend the credit.

But its backers see positive signs. Chan has filed legislation four times before to repeal the sunset clause, but only managed a single cosponsor once, in 2011. This year, 106 representatives and senators have signed on.

“If the state wants to stay competitive with other states — this is a competition with other states and Canada — to bring more work into Massachusetts, we really need to think long-term about how we’re going to position ourselves to do that,” Chan said. “And the film tax credit is one aspect of how to position ourselves.”

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.