A lot has been said recently about the so-called “Hollywood’ film credit. BMG’s own esteemed ryepower12 has even gone so far as to posit the choice as between “hollywood” and the MBTA. Rather stark that. I had begun to formulate a reply to that post, but decided to table it in an effort to be pickier about the battles…. Now, however, it seems the idea is gaining some measure of traction. This post is an iteration of that earlier, aborted, reply.
Without being strictly convinced that the tax credit itself is particularly a good or a bad idea, there are some aspects of the credit that aren’t discussed that I think, with all my contrarian charm, are elided in favor of the above pictured ‘Bluebird of get the hell off my lawn’… I’d rather like to think we can discuss these things before dismissing the credit out of hand.
First of all, there’s nothing that I know of in the tax credit that limits the tax credit to out-of-staters only: yes, “Hollywood” is the biggest player and probably certain to be a beneficiary of the credit, but there’s nothing stopping any resident of the CommonWealth, or nearby states, from filming here and reaping the benefit of the credit. (I’m looking at you Matt Damon: open a Mass Based production company already… oh, and by the way, I just happen to have an idea for a film set in Boston…) Is anyone doing that? I don’t know. Is the nurturing of a CommonWealth centric film industry a central purpose of the law? Again, I don’t know. But I certainly think it ought to be… There’s a lot of money in celluloid. Maybe that’s not enough of a reason to keep the credit. Fine. But it is a reason to avoid calling it the ‘Hollywood tax credit” and treating it as though it’s for outsiders only. It is, I think, for this very reason that Gov Baker pits the EITC against the film industry: it’s rank class warfare maybe possible by the bitter antagonisms towards Hollywood.
Secondly, Massachusetts already has a thriving tourism industry. From the point of view of dollars and cents, in an economy tourism dollars are some of the best dollars there are: if, as Paul Krugman oft states “your spending is my income and my spending is your income” then somebody who takes their income from one place and spends it on another is, strictly speaking, only adding to the dollars in that other place. It’s not quite free money but it is close: in a CommonWealth where tourism is the third largest industry — and we’re talking between 13 and 16 billion dollars annually — and where a little promotional money is spent with a very big return, anything that gets the images of the CommonWealth out there can only add to that. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. But let’s not pretend this isn’t a part of it. How much more would the Office of Travel and Tourism have to spend to get comparable exposure for the CommonWealth? How many movies are about Boston and/or the CommonWealth that would be filmed elsewhere — substituting some other city for the location — but for the film credit?
This isn’t necessarily a defense of the tax credit. I tend to think that it is, absent a deliberate push to make film a vital component of the CommonWealths economy, overall a wash. As such, tossing the credit will require some funding increases or resource allocation elsewhere. I’m fine with that. It might be better to directly target any nascent film industry in the CommonWealth. And if we want more tourism maybe we should directly appeal for more tourism, rather than hope that tax breaks for movies tickle the travel fancy of moviegoers. I don’t know. Let us discuss it.
It is, however, an appeal to have a better debate on the subject. Simply saying MBTA v Hollywood or Hollywood v EITC, isn’t actually all that much better than giving Charlie Baker another wedge with which to divide us.