Should Florida revitalize its film industry through a burst of new economic incentives and subsidies?
A definitive yes to that question comes from a somewhat surprising source: Florida TaxWatch. The nonprofit government watchdog is usually somewhere between lukewarm and cynical when taxpayer funds are used to pick winners and losers — in any industry. But if done the right way, incentives and tax breaks, according to a new TaxWatch report, could provide an action-packed boost to the sector in the Sunshine State.
“TaxWatch has long maintained incentives are simply one tool in the state’s economic development toolkit and that, although not a substitute for the fundamentals of good economic growth,” the report states, “incentives for the film and television industry should not be ignored as a part of the state’s overall economic development strategy.”
In other words, adds TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro: “In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need (incentives) but it’s not a perfect world.”
The film industry pie Florida can grab a piece of is as big as a summer blockbuster: Direct film and television industry jobs generated $53 billion in wages nationwide in 2016, with average salaries 42% higher than the national average, the report found. There were nearly 342,000 jobs in the core business of producing, marketing, manufacturing and distributing motion pictures and television shows.
From 2010 through 2015, Florida, particularly areas around Orlando, Miami and to a lesser extent, Tampa and Sarasota, scored some major film and TV production wins. Shows included HBO’s Ballers, filmed in Miami, and Netflix’s Bloodline, filmed in Key West.
The wins, the TaxWatch report shows, stem largely from a five-year, $242 million transferable tax credit program that wooed producers and location scouts to Florida. The program ended in 2016, and, despite a heavy lobbying effort, the Legislature declined to extend it. “Without a funded program to entice projects and companies to our state, in the last three-plus years we’ve lost more than 50 major film and television projects that would have spent more than $1 billion in Florida,” says John Lux, executive director of Film Florida.
The end of that program, say TaxWatch and Florida film industry officials, also gave Georgia an opening to revamp and increase its incentives programs, including a 20% tax credit for companies that spend $500,000 or more on production and post-production. Georgia, states the report, had 116 films and 150 TV series in fiscal 2016-2017, which supported more than 92,000 jobs and paid $2.15 billion in wages.
Florida, like a good Hollywood script with a character beaten down only to rise up at the end, can still win this game, say TaxWatch officials. The organization offers several options for Florida to revitalize its film production sector, including:
• Revamping the tax credit program to encourage and require longer stays of production and more jobs and eliminating the first-come, first-serve part of the tax credits;
• Encouraging counties and cities to develop their own incentives, following leads in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota, among others; and
• Utilizing the private sector for partnerships, like Ringling College of Art and Design has done in Sarasota.
“Florida’s business-friendly tax climate, good weather and beaches have their advantages,” says Calabro in the report. “However, state policymakers should strongly consider a sound, fiscally-responsible incentive program to help grow targeted industries such as film and television production.”