The California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released a study in September (California’s First Film Tax Credit Program) that for the first time, offers an assessment of the economic and fiscal impact of the filming incentives that the State of California approved for our entertainment industry. This is particularly interesting because the LAO is the nonpartisan fiscal and policy advisor to the state legislature, which means we should be able to rely on the veracity of their report.
The study zeroes in on the tax incentives that were first adopted in 2009 which provided a total of $800-million in incentives spread over eight years at $100-million per year. The LAO did not evaluate the more recent incentives (AB1839) that were passed in 2014 and raised the subsidy to $330-million a year. That report will come in a couple of years. Why should we care about what the LOA says? Because when it comes time to renew the film incentives, the LOA’s report will likely carry a lot of weight with legislators!
Unless you are a policy wonk, you are unlikely to wade through this report, so let me share with you some of the most interesting data in the report.
The LOA estimated that the $800-million in tax credits went to productions that will spend an estimated $6.1-billion in California over the life of the first film tax program. They estimate that the “economic output of California was increased by between $6-billion and $10-billion on net over a period of more than a decade.” I wonder how many other investments by the state of California have resulted in numbers like this? That is money that went to buying goods and services and payroll for thousands of Californians.
What is particularly interesting is how much this new spending generated in tax dollars for state and local jurisdictions that would otherwise not have happened. The LAO estimates that the increase to State General Fund revenues amounted to between $300 and $500-million (not adjusted for inflation) and that the bulk of this increased revenue came in the form of state personal income taxes. Not only that, but they estimate that local tax revenues increased by roughly $200-million over the life of the program.
So, to summarize, the LAO is saying that on the low end State and local jurisdictions received $500-million in new taxes and on the high-end as much as $700-million in new revenues on an investment by the State of $800-million. This means that the net cost to the State was between $100 and $300-million. We haven’t yet seen any studies that estimate how many jobs have been saved, but conservatively it numbers in the thousands. These are the jobs of Californians, who previously were forced to leave the State to find work.
Paul Audley, the President of FilmL.A., Inc., tells me that prior to the passage of the 2009 tax credit, the L.A. region was losing key productions at an alarming rate. The worst quarter on record occurred immediately prior to the implementation of the tax credit. He added that with the enactment of AB1839 in 2014, California has regained ground and stabilized the vendor and crew base, and that currently, 25 percent of TV production and 10-percent of feature film production in L.A. is due to the tax credit program.
The LAO generally advises policy makers against tax expenditure programs, but in this case said that it was “understandable to defend a flagship industry targeted by other states” and that the credits “can be viewed as ways to ‘level the playing field’ to counter financial incentives to locate productions outside of California.”
If the State had not offered the incentives, it was on the way to losing its signature industry. Was this a good investment by the State? I think most Californians would say “absolutely.” Where else could the legislature have invested $800-million in economic development and seen income tax revenues coming back to the State of as much as $500-million with an economic stimulus as high as $10-billion?
But behind the numbers is a more important fact. California families were being separated for long periods of time since so many were forced to follow productions out of state if they wanted to work. We have heard from hundreds of people who are grateful to our public officials for enacting this program that has allowed them to return home to work. And that is a number to which you cannot attach a price tag.
Leron Gubler has been serving as the President and CEO of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce for the past 24 years. His tenure since 1992 continues to oversee the great comeback story of Hollywood.