Montana Stuck in Hollywood Bidding War

By Kellyn Brown

Despite appearing as the desperate half in the relationship, Montana’s courting of Hollywood will continue for some time. In 2007, the Legislature voted to sweeten the incentives offered to filmmakers in hopes of luring more movies here and this last session lawmakers extended “The Big Sky on the Big Screen Act” until 2015. And, although the rewards are dubious, the state recently announced that it would take it one step further.

The Montana Department of Commerce Film Office has launched a new campaign dubbed “Studio 406” that bundles incentives with more resources aimed at attracting even more movies. Now, for a Hollywood film, along with tax breaks, the state is offering everything from free location scouting to free police protection.

“Since the Big Sky on the Big Screen Act was implemented in 2005, film productions have contributed over $38 million to Montana’s economy and helped employ 183 people a year,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer said. “That’s a significant impact – and Studio 406 is going to capitalize on the progress we’ve already made.”

I’m all for jobs in Montana, and really enjoy a good flick. But the fact remains that measuring the economic impact of movies made in Montana is subjective at best. And now, with more than 40 states tripping over each other to give Hollywood the best deal, the benefits are even more elusive.

Many Louisiana state lawmakers recently raised concerns that offering a 30 percent tax credit to filmmakers would simply continue a bidding war for movies with other states at a time when none of them can afford to lose tax revenue. In a desperate attempt to keep the television series “Burn Notice” from leaving South Florida that state doubled the production incentives it offers to $10 million, while cutting its state budget by $3 billion (it should be noted that “Miami Vice” never received government aid). And Massachusetts, which has spent about $166 million on incentives the last two years, has concluded that the state’s taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth.

Meanwhile, more states are offering Hollywood incentives than ever before, and many of their proponents keep saying that the productions provide a much-needed economic boon once cameras start rolling. Yet more critics are beginning to question whether, in fact, states are getting played by Hollywood, which is the only guaranteed beneficiary as it shops around for bargain-basement deals.

“The industry has been able to play off North Carolina against South Carolina against Louisiana against Georgia. Louisiana raises its incentives and it puts pressure on South Carolina, North Carolina and other states to do likewise,” Bob Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice who heads an anti-incentives group, told the Associated Press.

Montana offers backdrops that few other states can duplicate, and we should still offer some incentives to filmmakers in order to remain competitive. But while Montana has expanded its offerings, not surprisingly, so too has Wyoming.

Sten Iversen, the state’s film office executive, recently told the Hollywood Reporter that he hopes to brand this state as an “indie incubator.” His office wants to bring more small productions to Montana, where his office will have a hands-on role to make filming as seamless and cost-effective as possible.

“Film commissions don’t just have to be about a production guide and a tax incentive,” Iversen told the trade magazine.

I think that’s the right approach. But the state should still remain wary of offering more than a film’s worth. While we stand to benefit from landing the next “The River Runs Through It,” or “Horse Whisperer,” as more states compete for Hollywood’s attention, it’s becoming easier for lawmakers to become star struck. And it’s at once becoming easier for taxpayers that work outside the film industry to ask, “Where’s my tax break?”

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