California TV, Film Tax Credit Gets Pricetag: $400 Million Annually

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The bill would put program on par with rivals like New York and now heads to the full Senate

Legislators on Thursday finally attached a dollar figure — $400 million annually — to the bill that would super-size California’s TV and film tax incentive program and extend it through 2022.

That’s four times the $100 million in credits that the program currently doles out annually to TV and film producers, and would put California’s incentives in line with states like New York, Louisiana and Georgia. Along with Canada and the U.K., those states have siphoned off huge chunks of California’s once dominant TV and film production industry by offering their own juicy tax breaks over the past several years.

The high-end dollar figure is a big win for the bill’s backers, a coalition of studios, Hollywood unions, the post-production industry,talent agents, local governments, film commissions and small vendors like caterers. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has been at the forefront of the push for the bill, and a vocal proponent of funding that would put the state on par with its rivals.

The proponents united as the California Film and Television Production Alliance and Thursday applauded the panel and its chairman Sen. Kevin DeLeon.

“The bill underscores a commitment to the hardworking men and women of California’s film and television production community and to putting an end to the loss of these middle class jobs,” they said in a statement after the vote.

Also read: The $420 Million Question: How Much Will California Set Aside for TV, Film Tax Credits?

Thursday’s 5-0 passage by the Senate Appropriations Committee sends the California Film and Television Job Retention and Promotion Act, authored by Assemblymen Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) and Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima), to the full Senate. If it passes there — this legislative session ends on Aug. 31 — it would be reconciled with the version the Assembly approved earlier and go to Gov. Jerry Brown for the final OK.

In addition to extending the existing program, the bill also would for the first time allow movies with budgets greater than $75 million and new TV network dramas to qualify for the credits, which can cover up to 25 percent of a production. The production landscape has changed since 2009, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched the original program, which was designed to most help basic cable and smaller movies. The loss of blockbusters and high-end TV productions has taken the greatest toll on the state in recent years, and the bill aims to stop that bleeding.   

The current program is wildly over-subscribed and utilizes a lottery to determine who gets first shot at the credits. In June, just 23 projects out of a record 497 applications were initially accepted. Among the amendments added in the panel session Thursday was a call for “unspecified changes” in the lottery system; it’s entirely possible that the need would be erased with the program’s funding increased so significantly.

“With that money and eight years, this will change the landscape,” said film producer Michael Helfant, who had just returned to L.A. after scouting locations in Georgia and Louisiana for his upcoming “Mr. Right,” an action comedy starring Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell.

“We have the best crews and the best talent pool here, but people are going to go where they can get a financial advantage, and this is going to make a difference,” said Helfant, who partially funded the 2013 Halle Berry thriller “The Call” with tax credits.

Also read: What State Is the Movie-Making Capital of the World? Hint: It’s Not California or New York

The measure, Assembly Bill 1839, has sailed through the Legislature to this point, but without a specific cost to taxpayers included. Since its introduction in May, it has not received a single “no” vote in two Assembly committees, the full Assembly or the Senate Governance and Finance Committee. Part of the reason no figure was attached was that it is sure to mobilize opponents of the bill — especially with the number set at the high end –and could make it more difficult for Gov. Jerry Brown to ultimately approve the bill.

Some opposition will come from Northern California, which stands to benefit less. But the bill’s authors have taken steps to woo regions beyond Hollywood, providing an extra five percent credit for projects that shoot outside the L.A. area.

Gov. Brown has yet to take a formal position on the bill. It’s touchy for him, because the bill faces opposition from some of the state’s powerful teachers’ unions, who believe the money would be better spent on education. But he signaled tacit support early on, and his staff and the bill’s authors have been talking behind the scenes, so it’s unlikely the measure’s price tag is a surprise.