Now in Theaters: Greetings From Missouri, The Show-Me State
The Internet is ablaze with discussion of film tax credits. The New York Times published an article about government officials denying film tax credits to films that fail to paint a state in a positive light, and Matt Welch at Reason Magazine and Joseph Henchman at the Tax Foundation have since posted substantive analyses.
According to the New York Times article:
“This film is unlikely to promote tourism in Michigan or to present or reflect Michigan in a positive light,” wrote Janet Lockwood, Michigan’s film commissioner.
Missouri may or may not officially require that films promote the state as a condition of receiving tax credits, but there seems to be a correlation. I’m reminded of a scene from Up in the Air, which cashed $4,131,011 in Missouri tax credits in 2009, when George Clooney’s character sang an ode to “historic” Lambert–St. Louis International Airport:
Are you kidding — Lambert Field? The Wright brothers flew through there. That domed main terminal is the first of its kind; it’s a precursor of everything from JFK to de Gaulle.
On one hand, officials are not saying that the movies considered in the New York Times article can’t or shouldn’t be made; instead, they’re saying that the films won’t receive subsidies. On the other hand, by placing restrictions on which genres of film that it will subsidize, the government helps to pick winners and losers within an industry that is already favored.
If a state decides to subsidize certain films and not others, it should be clear and upfront about the intention of the program. Does it exist to create jobs? Economic growth? Tourism? Positive net domestic migration? Something else? If the purpose of the film tax program is to support an infant film industry, there is no reason to dictate the terms of the presentation. (This begs a further question: Would a film that featured cannibals generate a dissimilar number of jobs and economic activity to a film that didn’t?) If the purpose is to promote the state as a tourist destination, however, officials should be up-front about their intentions.
Furthermore, the practice of approving or denying the content of a film encourages people to ask the government to affirm their preferences, much like state symbols. As communicated in the article, this can even include moral judgments:
In Florida, a recent legislative proposal to bar a special tax credit for family entertainment from films or shows that exhibit “nontraditional family values” was dropped after it was widely criticized as seeming to exclude gay characters.
The moral of the story for filmmakers? If a filmmaker wants to secure film tax credits, he or she should brown-nose bureaucrats by promoting their state.