Clearly, Charlie Baker hasn’t seen “That’s My Boy,” “R.I.P.D.,” or any of the other cinematic masterpieces underwritten by Massachusetts taxpayers through the state’s film tax credit. Otherwise, would the governor propose to abolish the tax credit — and then redirect the money for programs to help poor people?
Fittingly, there’s a bit of theatrics to Baker’s recommendation, which he is expected to unveil Wednesday as part of his budget proposal. As a policy matter, lawmakers should evaluate the two ideas — ending the film program and expanding the earned-income credit for low-income families — on their own merits. But as a political matter, linking the two does put film boosters on the defensive, and forces the Legislature to justify spending $80 million a year on movies in the context of a gaping budget deficit and other pressing needs.
Since 2006, when the credit was created, the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars financing movies filmed in Massachusetts. The idea was to aid the local movie industry and make the state more hospitable to artists, while at the same time reaping the intangible benefits of showcasing the state on the silver screen. That vision won widespread support — including from this editorial page.
But the evidence of the last nine years just hasn’t vindicated those hopes. As an economic development program, the film tax credit has proved extraordinarily inefficient. Report after report has shown that the number of jobs created is small, and that much of the money flows to out-of-state movie stars. The program has attracted criticism from across the political spectrum, from left-leaning groups, like the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, to the business-funded Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. It’s true that some artists benefit, but it’s hardly fair to shovel millions into one sector — one that already has access to plenty of private capital — while poets, musicians, and other Massachusetts artists get table scraps.
One local group that has clearly benefited, though, is the Teamsters, whose members often work on sets. Prior to the credit, many filmmakers had avoided Massachusetts because of the cost and hassle of working with the union. But rather than influencing the union to lower its prices or end its occasionally heavy-handed ways, the creation of the film credit seems to have allowed it to avoid reform and, instead, simply pass their inflated costs on to the public.
And what about the much-vaunted reputational benefits? Whether “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” has added to the prestige of Burlington, for instance, will always remain in the eye of the beholder. Still, based on the movies that have been filmed here, a convincing case could be made that the credit has subsidized too many movies that tell an outdated story about Massachusetts. Hollywood loves Boston thugs, and has used taxpayer money to film “The Town” and the forthcoming “Black Mass,” among other crime flicks. The very image modern Massachusetts should by trying to shake off is the one producers seem intent on reinforcing for the rest of the world.
That was the chance the Commonwealth took when it decided to dangle money in front of producers in order to build a local film industry. It hasn’t paid off. With so many better uses of public money calling, the state would be justified in cutting its losses.