Old joke – a merchant tells a customer that the goods he’s selling actually cost him more than he’s charging the customer for them. When he’s asked how he can afford to sell them at a loss, he answers: the profit comes from selling in volume.
Sadly, something akin to that joke is serving as the premise for our state’s film tax credit program: all our tax break giveaways are — somehow — going to boost our bottom line.
This is the eighth year Massachusetts has offered a film tax credit. For the first six of those years (2006-2011, the years for which data is available), the state gave away $327 million in credits. These tax credits attracted $186 million in new spending, which yielded $44 million in new revenue. That is to say, for every dollar we spent on film tax credits, we lost 87 cents and retained 13.
Given its abysmal record so far, why is it (to borrow a line from a movie that was not filmed in Massachusetts) that we just can’t quit the film tax credit? Let’s review.
In 2005, Massachusetts enacted a relatively modest film tax credit, which was signed by Governor Mitt Romney. The credit under that program was limited to $7 million, and it was not refundable. Also in 2005, director Martin Scorsese filmed a movie about Boston, The Departed. Most of the filming for that movie, however, took place not in Boston but in New York. And especially after that movie won four Oscars in 2006, people got to talking about how other states were poaching on what should be our movies and how we needed to do something about it.
So in 2007 (possibly influenced by one film director who said that film executives “would shoot a movie on Mars if they could get a 25 percent tax break”), Massachusetts opened the spigot wide, where it remains today. Now we reimburse film companies for 25 percent of their production and payroll costs, and we also throw in an exemption from the sales tax. Most significantly, the film tax credit is now refundable. This means that after the film company has paid the state taxes it owes, it can sell the remainder (usually at a slight discount) to a company or individual who owes state taxes and who can therefore capture the full value of the credit. As soon as he signed the legislation, Governor Deval Patrick (apparently unconcerned about criticism that the point of the the film tax credit was to let politicians hobnob with Hollywood celebrities) hurried off in order to hang with Denzel, who was in town filming The Great Debaters. And probably at exactly the same time, markets sprang up for the buying and selling of film tax credits.
Who’s buying them? Primarily insurance companies, financial institutions and other corporations that owe state taxes. Of the $327 million in film tax credits that have been generated since 2006, these organizations have purchased $280 million, or 86 percent. They have paid an average of 89 cents for a dollar’s worth of tax credit and thereby reduced the state taxes they would otherwise have had to pay by $30 million.
In the difficult budget years after he signed the film tax credit into law, Governor Patrick has lost some of his original enthusiasm. He now believes that the credit should be capped at $40 million per year. There’s no cap under current law. This is an entitlement program — filmmakers are free to come to Massachusetts and we are obliged to pay them 25 percent of their production costs, whatever those costs are. And if past experience is a guide, 87 cents of every credit dollar we give will simply disappear. The Department of Revenue estimates that the projects claiming the film tax credit in 2012 will cost the state more than $78 million. Representative Angelo Scaccia of Boston filed an amendment to the House budget last month to cap the film tax credit at $40 million, but it was rejected; the prospects for closing the spigot are not good.
So what to do? How about — if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em? The market for buying film tax credits is open to everyone. Maybe some civic-minded individuals or companies or individuals who owe state taxes could purchase tax credits at the going rate of 89 cents on the dollar and then, instead of keeping the 11 percent savings, donate it to a worthy cause. Or we can organize ourselves into (gasp!) collectives and then share the proceeds among us. As the insurance companies and financial institutions have demonstrated, there’s lots of money to be had. If they can make millions from this policy debacle, why can’t we?
So what do you say? It’s showtime!