Union Roundup: Production Incentives Experts Gather, Hoping Hollywood Can Bring Economic Recovery As We Learn to Live With Covid

Webinar
Image via TK
Webinar
Image via TK

During the dog days of August, one of our excuses for staying in, where the air was cooler, was a Zoom seminar (remember those, in these suddenly, precipitously, unmasked times?) from Entertainment Partners, that offered an update on U.S. Production Incentives for 2022.

The seminar focused on four states — Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and California — and was moderated by EP’s incentives expert, Joe Chianese. More than just a “hey, what rebates haven’t you heard of yet?,” gathering, one of its specific focuses was to discuss, as Chianese put it “how film and TV production can bring recovery, post-Covid.”

Putting aside how “post” we might actually be, Jay Roewe, SVP for Incentives & Production Planning at HBO/Warner Bros. Discovery, quickly moved the conversation beyond the four states in question, calling it “a thriving, thriving time. There’re billions of dollars of incentives around the world for us to access. It’s a great time for incentives and the industry,” with Chianese noting that some states are also upping their own incentive game, or trying to jump back in it.

Massachusetts, for example, had repealed the sunset provisions for its own incentives, Indiana was bringing back tax credits, and Rhode Island is contemplating hefty production rebates of its own. Chianese called these “not just subsidies for studios, but job creation bills, infrastructure bills” citing as an example the Delaware Entertainment Job Act, and observing — as did a lot of the hour’s participants — that soundstages, media centers, and indeed, other infrastructure, are often built as a result of these initiatives.

But this initial giddiness quickly ran into some of the prevailing contradictions when chasing putative economic salvation through production dollars — namely, the ongoing culture wars, acute in some locales, that seek to demonize the very companies they are also wooing, along with their so-called “woke” product.

Colleen Bell
Colleen Bell image via Elaine Lee Photography

When Chianese asked, fairly early on, whether these considerations would have any effect on where productions chose to film, only Colleen Bell, the Executive Director of California’s Film Commission, responded, saying the state had a “long tradition of respecting fundamental rights” (which is certainly true in recent times, if you don’t reach back far enough to include the union-busting and anti-labor activities of the original studio heads). She also cited gun safety laws, and civil liberties for the LGBTQ community as other issues allowing each and every member of a crew to feel more at ease while filming here, along with Governor Newsom’s support for SB 485, which would add $1.65 billion to the state’s Film & Television Tax Credit Program through 2030 — thus allocating about $330 million per year in industry tax credits.

After that, the subject was immediately dropped. Or rather, no one else responded to the question, and there was never any follow-up.

Not that it was the job of Arizona’s Nick Simonetta, who’d been a consultant for both the legislative and gubernatorial branches of The Grand Canyon state, and who, as a partner in his Pivotal Consulting Partners firm, helped craft their recent batch of production incentives, nor of Sandy Lighterman, Film Commissioner for Florida’s Broward County and Greater Fort Lauderdale, to try and weigh in on social issues. But one can see how they might not want to, given the particular upheavals in the places they represent.

Simonetta talked of bringing both Republicans and Democrats on board for Arizona’s legislation, and of crafting a “20-year sunset” on the act, “a timeline needed so [the] industry would invest. The law becomes operative at the end of September. And It doesn’t have a minimum spend — the percentages go higher the more you spend.” Plus there are “kickers for using local crew.”

All well and good, unless an extremist like Kari Lake should prevail in the governor’s race there in a few weeks’ time. It’s hard to imagine an industry land rush, and a lot of time spent developing crews, in a place where its potential chief executive calls media “filthy” and “corrupt.

Current polls, however, suggest that Lake’s far-right campaign may yet be stymied. That would appear to be less true in Florida, where incumbent Ron DeSantis is currently favored to be re-elected.

Lighterman, talking of incentives that were Broward-specific, and not simply general Florida programs, cited the enthusiasm for production in her area, saying “residents [and] businesses want it.” And there was no reason to doubt the excitement manifest on the Zoom call.

But as DeSantis prepares for his White House run, replacing — in Broward county — elected school board members who displeased him (ostensibly over findings regarding the Parkland school shooting, though guns, of course, remain easier to get there than many books) one wonders what happens to a film or TV company seeking to adapt a book or graphic novel, that’s become, essentially banned in the very place seeking its job dollars?

Lighterman was also talking about the possibilities of newer, bigger incentives coming circa 2024 -25, right around the time DeSantis hopes to find himself installed in the White House. Much will have changed by then — even a few more hurricane seasons will have come and gone.

Ashley Rice
Ashley Rice image via Cinespace

Ashley Rice, president and co-managing partner for Chicago-based Cinespace Studios also echoed Chianese, saying she likes “to refer to our industry as a strategic recovery industry,” and also cited the studio’s “robust trainee programs,” where “70 percent go on to film jobs,” and “a high number of union jobs. As we expand facilities, we’ll be taking that program with us”

To which Chianese replied that Illinois was “basically Georgia,” in the film incentive department (“except,” he added “the one little piece we gotta fix — the cap,” which puts an upper limit on rebates).

But that was also the elephant in the room, as it were… Georgia isn’t Illinois, in terms of policy and governing, nor is Florida like California (aside from a shared penchant for natural disasters, orange groves, and Disney parks). And every indication is those gulfs will only continue to widen.

Meaning that film commissioners and incentive programs everywhere will, increasingly, have a lot more to talk about and juggle — or avoid talking about — than how many production dollars you’re getting back.

Meanwhile, the entire Entertainment Partners Production Incentive webinar is available online right here — just in case you’ve finished all of your Emmy screeners.

Which brings us to next week, when I recap the Creative Arts Emmys. See you then.


MLWIncrediHeadMark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”

Mark London Williams’ Union Roundup column will appear every Tuesday. You can reach him to give him tips and feedback at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @TricksterInk.