NYC film incentives
One of my earliest blog posts was on a movie being filmed in my neighborhood, Astoria. That movie, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, is now completed and screened to rather positive reviews (and two awards) at Sundance. I've seen some screenshots of scenes that were filmed half a block from my apartment...
What I didn't know at the time was that that movie was significantly aided by a package of New York State and City tax incentives that were started a few years ago. The NYT and WNYC have stories about this. Filming in NYC is more expensive than filming in other locations (Toronto and Vancouver being popular standins) due to the high cost of lodging and feeding the crew. The incentives, started in 2003, allow films and TV shows that do 75% or more of their filming in the city to get 15% of their production costs (not including director and cast salaries) to be written off their various taxes. It's been unbelievably successful. Since a low in 2002, the number of hours of film and TV filmed in the city have literally doubled. This has a large impact on the city, in both good and bad ways. In bad ways, filming disrupts traffic in all sorts of exciting ways. On the other hand, the economic impact on the city is significant. Silvercup Studios, down the road in Long Island City, is planning to build a huge new highrise development on the East River, with sound stages, cultural and retail centers, and (of course) apartments.
However, as a result of all this enthusiasm for filming in New York, the money allocated by the city and state for the incentives is running out very quickly. There's talk of making the intentives, or some version of them, permanent. On the other hand, that was $175 million in taxpayer money that was spent pretty rapidly. Was it worth it? Did that $175 million pay for itself in terms of generating tax revenues from other sources? At a minimum, did it spur enough economic activity to be considered a good investment, compared to other investments that could be made? This seems to be the key question, and answers don't seem to be clear. The Times says, "People familiar with the program said it appeared to recoup its costs by generating new economic activity, but city officials declined to detail such figures." That's hopeful, but not too convincing. Other investments that the government makes, such as building bridges and educating kids, make longstanding contributions to economic activity. One thing that's very clear, given how fast TV and film expanded here, is that if the incentives leave, the industry will be very quick to crunch the numbers, and will likely leave too.