New York Is Throwing Money at Film Shoots, But Who Benefits?

The state spends $600 million a year to subsidize film and TV productions, yet promised job and tax gains remain elusive


When the D.C.-based subsidy watch group Good Jobs First released its analysis recently of the $1.2 billion that New York State hands out in tax breaks to private industries each year, one item stood out: $621 million in subsidies for film and TV shoots that take place in the state. That means every man, woman, and child in New York shells out an average of $31 a year in public money into the coffers of studios and production companies.

TV and film production is big business in New York, as anyone who’s seen the ubiquitous “Made in NY” subway ads for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment already knows. And since it’s a notoriously footloose industry — you can get away with filming almost anywhere, especially when audiences don’t seem to mind if your big Bronx epic features a climactic hovercraft chase across a suspiciously big harbor — that draws in spending that might otherwise go to other states, there’s even hope that, unlike with subsidies for a sports stadium or a corporate headquarters, New Yorkers are even getting a decent economic bang for their buck.

“The tax credits are quite important — they fill a financing gap,” says Scott Macaulay, an independent film producer (Casting JonBenet) and editor-in-chief of Filmmaker magazine. Without them, he and other film industry veterans say, production companies might well pull up stakes and go to another location that offers better incentives.

That’s the theory, at least. But though both the city and state film offices provide data showing that the film industry has grown here since Governor George Pataki instituted the state’s tax credit program in 2004, economic experts aren’t so sure, pointing to other numbers that show that film and TV shoots don’t employ many more people in the state than they did fifteen years ago — and that any gain is nowhere near worth the hundreds of millions of dollars a year that the state pours into it.

“The figures do not appear to be audited — everyone is taking everyone else’s word for it,” says Michael Thom, a USC public policy professor who has studied film tax breaks nationwide. There have now been multiple state-level studies of film subsidies, he says, and “all of them come to this conclusion it’s a negative return on investment.”

And even if a positive impact does exist, New York’s film industry spending may just be a way of treading water: a zero-sum game where states compete to throw increasing amounts of tax money at the same number of jobs. It’s a problem that corporate-subsidy experts in other industries have dubbed “the economic war among the states” — and it serves mostly to funnel money out of public treasuries and into private pockets.

“It’s like Groundhog Day except the main character doesn’t evolve,” says Good Jobs First executive director Greg LeRoy. “The repetition of states chasing film shoots is an extreme example of how our state-eat-state job wars fail to deliver on good, enduring jobs or stronger tax bases.”

That there’s a lot of shooting taking place in New York these days is self-evident to anyone who’s fought their way past yet another catering truck or team of production assistants blocking the sidewalk. Empire State Development, which oversees film tax breaks, provides a helpful list of 74 productions that got state aid in the second quarter of 2017, ranging from major beneficiaries like season two of Madam Secretary ($21,217,413) and season three of Elementary ($20,535,166) to smaller projects like Flatbush Luck, a comedy crime drama that collected $49,778 for 74 jobs this spring after hitting screens in 2016. (There can be as much as a two-year lag time between an initial credit application and final approval following a state audit, according to ESD.)

Knowing that there’s filming going on doesn’t really say much about the effectiveness of subsidies, though. To do a real analysis of what sort of bang New Yorkers are getting for their film-subsidy buck, you need to calculate how much production activity would have happened even without subsidies, controlling for other factors that may have influenced rising or falling job numbers.

The government chase for movie and TV shoots began in the 1990s, says Joseph Stephans, an indie film producer (Wildlike) and location manager. “Tax incentives were not on my radar at the time — I don’t know if they were for anybody,” he says. At the time, indie films in particular were experiencing a heyday, with many shooting in New York, but more because that’s where the locations (and willing crews) were, not because of economic benefits.

All that changed in 1997 when Canada, seeking to boost a domestic film industry that was languishing at best — the top-grossing Canadian movie to that date, Porky’s, had been shot in Florida instituted a 16 percent federal tax credit for foreign producers who agreed to shoot in the country. With several Canadian provinces tacking on their own film subsidy programs, producers could suddenly receive rebates on as much as 70 percent of their expenditures, so long as they were made in loonies.

Immediately, there was a surge in movies and TV shows using Canadian cities as stand-ins for U.S. locations — as the Guardian noted, Chicago (2002), New York Minute (2004), and Hollywoodland (2006) were all shot in Toronto. In the late Nineties, says Stephans, “there were small markets all over the country — Georgia, Minnesota, Louisiana — that had some small incentives, and they did well with production.” But once Canada launched its film credit program, he says, it “basically just grabbed all of that — any middle-market, non-L.A. or -New York work was gone.”

Soon after, New York State struck back. In 2004, it instituted its Film Production Tax Credit program to reimburse production companies for 10 percent of all “below-the-line” costs (those for actual shooting work, not counting such things as principal actors’ or directors’ fees). Four years later, the benefit was tripled to 30 percent of below-the-line costs. Though framed as “tax credits,” these payments are refundable — meaning producers can receive far more from the state than they’d ever owe in actual taxes.

Today, most states provide some form of subsidy to local shoots, with New York’s 30 percent rate among the highest. “The amount of help from the government was in direct response to Canada’s subsidies that kicked in in the late Nineties,” says Stephans. “And New York has been calling their bet ever since.”

Other states upped their own antes at the same time as New York, some to startlingly high levels. The results were largely poor: A 2015 report for the Mississippi legislature found that states took losses of anywhere from 54 percent to 93 percent on money expended on film subsidies. Iowa’s 50 percent credit — which the state had advertised as “half-price filmmaking” — was scrapped after just a few months amid charges of fraud and mismanagement, with the state actually paying one filmmaker not to film in the state rather than apply for credits.

“States like Iowa and Michigan have learned the hard way that film jobs are fleeting, too easily lured away, leaving no enduring benefits but very high costs,” says LeRoy.

For New York, the return on the state’s $600 million–a-year expense is not simple to calculate. The latest audit by Camoin Associates for ESD of the film and TV industry cites figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showing a slow but steady climb in the share of film and TV production jobs going to New York State, from just under 15 percent when the credits were introduced in 2004 to 19 percent in 2015. And the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment provides figures showing that the number of film productions has risen slightly over the past ten years (from 245 in 2007 to 311 in 2016, with a low of 162 in 2012), while TV series shoots have skyrocketed, from a mere 12 in 2006 to 56 last season. In terms of film and TV employment, the Camoin audit claims the state credit generates a total impact of more than 70,000 jobs in 2015 and 2016.

Other statistics, however, paint a far less rosy picture. The number of people employed in New York in “motion picture and sound recording” (the state’s designation) and “motion picture and video production” (the feds’) actually appears to have gone down in recent years, despite the subsidies, notes Thom. The former, at an average of about 58,000 individuals, is about the same as it was in 2000 — though there was a slight dip in 2003 and 2004, after Canada’s subsidies took full effect and before New York’s kicked in — and both have declined slightly since 2013.

How could one set of numbers show that film tax credits have led to a huge boom in production jobs, while others show little to no effect? One issue is that the state’s audits separately report each job stint, no matter how short, rather than converting to “full-time equivalent” jobs — a tiny footnote in the Camoin study indicates that “if one person is employed part-time for four months, then takes two months off and is hired again for four months that would be counted as two jobs.” As a result, the official state numbers double- or triple-count crew members who work on multiple productions in one year.

Another likely factor is that while the city has undoubtedly seen a jump in the total number of TV shoots, the number of hours worked may not be keeping pace. That’s because more and more local productions are for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, which have both shorter seasons and smaller crews. “Netflix and the like come at it more from an indie-film attitude,” with lower budgets, says Stephans. “Network jobs economically are much more attractive than streaming jobs.”

Meanwhile, there’s still the question of how much of this frenetic filming pace is attributable entirely to state cash handouts. The 2017 Camoin Associates audit determined that New York State paid out $1.36 billion in subsidies across 2015 and 2016, while bringing in $1.55 billion in state and city tax money — a 14.5 percent return on taxpayers’ investment. But that assumes that none of that tax revenue would have come in without the credits — that, in other words, all currently subsidized film and TV production in New York would dry up if the state weren’t paying for it.

Some productions would undoubtedly take place here regardless — The Daily Show didn’t decamp for Vancouver even when a subsidy gap existed, and The Defenders aren’t likely to start patrolling Yonge Street. Thom says that a study by the California legislature estimated that one-third of production activity in that state would take place in that state with or without subsidies. If the same ratio holds true in New York, then even if the state cut off the subsidy spigot and two-thirds of productions hightailed it to more budget-friendly climes, the state would still collect more than $250 million a year in tax revenues on an expense of zero dollars. With the current program running about a $100 million annual return by the state’s own figures, this implies that New York state would bring in about $150 million a year more in net revenues if it cut off film credits entirely — money it could conceivably then spend on more effective job-creation programs.

Subsidies for film and TV production in New York aren’t going away anytime soon: Cuomo’s latest budget extended the program three more years, until 2022, and both the Motion Picture Association of America and film production unions have lobbied hard to keep it in place. (A bill to add a “diversity credit” for salaries of TV writers and directors who are women or people of color has already passed the state legislature and is awaiting Cuomo’s signature.)

If you’re employed in the TV or movie industries in New York, that’s good: With the state paying 30 percent of your paychecks, that means producers are likely to be much more free with their spending. If you’re a New York State resident whose only tie to local entertainment production is watching Jessica Jones tear up Hell’s Kitchen, though, you’re paying a high price with your tax dollars. Maybe you’re right to gripe about that catering truck after all.