Like a horror movie bogeyman, film tax credits seem to always be lurking in the shadows. Enabling legislation is back again this session, but the case against them has just grown stronger.
The plot thus far: A Tax Foundation report in 2010 concluded that "Movie production incentives are costly and fail to live up to their promises." That same year, the report of the Missouri Tax Credit Review Commission concluded that the film tax credit "serves too narrow of an industry and fails to provide a positive return on investment to the state." The film commission was shut down in 2011 by then-Gov. Jay Nixon, and the Legislature allowed the credit to expire in 2013. But since then, almost every legislative session has seen an effort to reanimate its corpse.
Film-related jobs are short-lived by their very nature. And given the level of skill required in audio and video production, these jobs often go to out-of-state residents. When Missouri had a film tax credit, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Missouri jobs related to film production decreased!
Apparently, film tax credits don't always lead to good movies, either. In fact, in Tennessee, a recent study showed that more than 40 percent of films that received state grants made less at the box office than they received in incentives. And why should we think Missouri officials would be any better at picking winners? Even the show "30 Rock" aired two different episodes lampooning the practice of offering film tax credits.
Now we have a report from the state auditor of Georgia — the state whose film tax credit program is held up as an example worth emulating — and it isn't good. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "The economic benefits of Georgia's popular and lucrative film tax credit have been greatly inflated, and past estimates have not considered what would have happened if the state had instead spent the money on things such as education or health care."
The January 2020 report from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts is more specific, "The economic activity generated by the film tax credit does not generate sufficient additional revenue to offset the credit, even after considering tourism and studio construction. In 2016, the film tax credit resulted in a net revenue loss to the state estimated at $602 million. The state's return on investment for the credit was 10 cents for each dollar, though local governments received an additional return of 11 cents in revenue."
That is a shocking waste of money, even by government standards.
Supporters of film tax credits will point to productions like "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and "Ozark" and bemoan that they weren't filmed in the state. But why should taxpayers care? If Tennessee and Georgia want to forego millions of dollars of revenue producing questionable portrayals of the Show-Me State, let them go ahead. That doesn't mean Missouri should follow.
No legislator interested in reducing waste and fraud should consider bringing film tax credits back from the dead. The idea that they offer any positive return on investment is a more fanciful tale than any movie they would subsidize, and they do more damage than any monster Hollywood could conjure.
Patrick Tuohey is senior fellow of municipal policy at the Show-Me Institute.