The Show Must Go On … Here

A year ago, Wisconsin was flush with excitement. Johnny Depp was in our midst—Captain Jack Sparrow himself—filming a starring role in a big-budget Hollywood movie in locations around the state.

Why here? Because Wisconsin lawmakers stepped up to offer a big tax credit to lure filmmakers—up to twenty-five percent of what productions spend in the state. But now the very program that attracted the movie’s producers to come here could be dead before Public Enemies debuts this summer.

Gov. Jim Doyle says a huge budget shortfall means we can’t afford the incentives and he has proposed replacing them with a $500,000 per year grant program. Hollywood heavy hitters with ties to Wisconsin have been urging Doyle to reconsider, arguing one year is not enough time to judge the tax breaks and the program needs time to grow.

They’re right.

When he signed the tax credits into law, Doyle called filmmaking “part of manufacturing in the twenty-first century.”

The incentives created more than 750 Wisconsin jobs last year and prompted millions of dollars in infrastructure investment across the state, according to Film Wisconsin, an industry group pushing hard to keep the program.

It’s pretty clear none of the two dozen feature films and television shows that filmed in Wisconsin would have done so without the incentives. I don’t think Doyle’s proposal to provide grants for projects that create permanent jobs will lure similar productions when Illinois, Iowa and Michigan have incentive programs. I’m sure our neighbors will be more than happy to benefit from show business if we opt out.

No program is perfect. But legislators should make changes, including putting a cap on how many incentives can go to a production, rather than cutting them altogether.

Granted, tough times call for tough decisions and Hollywood and its pretty boys and girls aren’t easy to defend. And although I’ll admit my direct knowledge of the entertainment business is limited to hosting an annual Oscar party, it seems to me that scrapping the incentives is more for show than anything else.

Movie attendance is up, driving box office records as people seek an escape from the struggles awaiting them in the real world. As audiences hungrily devour the diversions that Hollywood manufactures, Wisconsin shouldn’t give up its chance for a starring role.

Jenny Price is a Madison native who covered the state Capitol for the Associated Press and has written about Wisconsin politics for a decade. E-mail her at jenny.price@gmail.com.

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