Good riddance to the Mass. film tax credit
What? No more Jennifer Lawrence sightings?
If the film tax credit is eliminated, as Governor Charlie Baker proposes, Boston might just have to settle for its old definition of celebrity. Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops. Former Congressman Bill Delahunt and George Regan at the PR guru’s annual Christmas soiree.
Boston can still count on Tom Brady, Giselle Bundchen, and the Sox. But if popular actors stop showing up at Boston clubs and restaurants, the bold-faced names that turn up in gossip columns will once again belong to hospital CEOs and Harvard professors.
If the film credit is gone, so will be films featuring bad Boston accents and moody shots of the Zakim Bridge. Artistically wanting they may be, but don’t underestimate their ability to pump the local psyche. Logan Airport’s Terminal C showcases all the movies made in Massachusetts. The film crews that took over prime downtown parking spots never delivered the jobs and revenue promised by tax credit proponents, but they did help to give this old town something it never had — a veneer of hipness. And for some, that was more than enough.
But unlike other star-struck politicians, Baker apparently sees through the veneer. He wants to end the film program and expand the earned-income-credit for low income families. Imagine helping poor people instead of pampered, overpaid movie stars? It’s good politics, but also good policy. In that quest, Baker has the blessing of Michael J. Widmer, the outgoing president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, who during his farewell gala speech took time to declare, “By the way, Charlie, I strongly agree with that proposal.”
Still, pulling the plug on Hollywood won’t be easy.
The pressure to let the movie industry have its way with Boston began in 2005, when actor and Oscar winner Matt Damon said his home state was losing out on millions of dollars in revenue because Massachusetts offered no incentives. “Entertainment-wise, we’re like Third World on the state level. We just don’t get it,” Damon said at the time. That November, Governor Mitt Romney signed a new law making movie and television production companies eligible for sales, income, and corporate excise tax credits. In 2007, Governor Deval Patrick approved legislation that expanded the film tax credit. He tried to put the brakes on Hollywood in subsequent years; in 2013, he proposed capping the film tax credit at $40 million. But the House rejected his proposal, likely responding more to the desires of the Teamsters, who work on sets, than to the production companies who hire them.
Baker will be running up against that resistance too. Promoters of this blatant, state-run bribery program always put a Hollywood glow on any downside.
Movie and television directors did flock to the Bay State, and Cameron Diaz sightings multiplied. But the state lost millions in tax revenue and never saw promised permanent job growth. The Globe reported that in 2012 the state’s film tax credit cost Massachusetts $78.9 million. According to a review by the state Department of Revenue, most of the economic benefits of local film production went out of state. Only about one-third of the $304 million in spending generated by the tax credit was spent in Massachusetts; and of nearly 2,000 jobs created by the tax credit, only about one-third went to Massachusetts residents, the DOR report found.
Yet film tax credit promoters still pushed a demonstrably bad product. “Developing a viable, sustainable film, television, and media industry takes time,” declared Lisa Strout, the director of the Massachusetts State Film Office. According to Commonwealth Magazine, which has rigorously covered the issue, the film tax credit has not done much to build a stand-alone film industry here, although some gains are connected to the construction of New England Studios at Fort Devens.
Since some 35 other states have similar credits, supporters also argue that the business will fade to black if Massachusetts subsidies are dropped.
So if the film tax credit goes away, People magazine won’t be reporting that J-Law didn’t attend the Golden Globes, but instead headed “to Bricco in Boston’s North End . . . for a feast with friends.” There, the 24-year-old star and her entourage “had the second floor all to themselves . . . while munching on burrata, zucchini flowers, octopus, and eggplant.’’
Come on, Massachusetts. Is losing that such a great tragedy?