Film Credits Better Spent Elsewhere

Job creation should be job one for state government. It’s what made the idea of film credits so appealing to lawmakers. For a few million dollars we can bring in jobs and attract high-profile excitement at the same time. Who doesn’t want Johnny Depp shooting up Columbus? Or the state Capitol featured on the big screen?

The only problem is it doesn’t work.

In many ways, Public Enemies was the best and worst example of the power of film credits. It attracted a star-studded film and created a genuine buzz, but the big-budget blockbuster also raked in $4.6 million in state incentives. And that outlay of state tax money only produced an estimated $5 million of spending in Wisconsin. Essentially, we saw little to no economic benefit for our money.

The program offers filmmakers a tax credit of twenty-five percent for production costs and credits for wages for people working on the film. That’s exactly the problem. The money helps bring in jobs that will be in Wisconsin, at most, for a couple of months. In the case of Public Enemies, more than half of the state credits went to cover salaries of non-Wisconsin residents.

There’s a better use for our money. A March Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial correctly pointed out the state handed out $3 million to Sargento in tax credits in 2008, protecting 1,100 jobs and bringing another five hundred into the state that will stay here for more than mere months.

Gov. Jim Doyle, facing a huge budget crisis, wants to chop the questionable film-credits program and replace it with a $500,000 annual grant targeted at creating permanent film industry jobs in the Badger State. That’s the right approach.

As it’s structured now, the current tax credit program is more about creating glamour than creating jobs. We’d all like to be top of mind for Hollywood producers, but forty other states offer film incentives. Wisconsin’s program doesn’t stand out even with tax credits that are in serious question.

The movie industry is all about reaching for the stars and chasing your dreams, but it’s time to let this one go. Doyle and state lawmakers should leave the current program on the cutting-room floor.

Colin Benedict is WISC-TV’s news director. Before that he was the station’s political reporter. He’s lived in the Madison area since 1995. E-mail him at cbenedict@wisctv.com.

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