The Out And Out Corruption Of Hollywood's State Subsidies
from the needs an investigation dept
For many years, we’ve written about what an incredible scam state tax subsidies to filmmakers are. Various states shove each other aside trying to throw more money at Hollywood, if they just agree to make their films locally. Hollywood insists that these subsidies are good for the states, because they “create jobs.” But the details almost always show otherwise. They are almost always a massive loss to the taxpayers. What jobs are created are temporary — and often filled by people who fly in from out of town. What “downstream” economic benefits are created are marginal at best. Almost every study of these subsidies has found that they lose money overall. And yet, the states keep expanding these programs, sometimes betting pension funds on them.
So the big question has to be: why do states keep throwing money at Hollywood this way?
The answer, it appears, may have an awful lot to do with out and out corruption.
Christopher Koopman recently wrote a post, digging through some of the Sony hack emails, highlighting how this isn’t just about states wanting some “Hollywood glamour.” There’s often some other stuff going on:
In the past few years, film programs across the country have been wracked with criminal charges and convictions. Louisiana is in the midst of a criminal trial against individuals charged with fraudulently collecting more than $1 million in state film tax credits for the creation of a film studio in New Orleans. Massachusetts has faced its own criminal trials over tax credit fraud. And in Iowa, a state audit found $26 million in improperly issued tax credits, and a subsequent investigation resulted in 10 criminal cases and 7 convictions. The state ultimately suspended its program in 2009. Nearly six years later, the state is still in the midst of sorting out the criminal trials surrounding its program.
This corruption has also extended to those in positions of determining how these programs work and who receives the available funds. California is currently in the midst of its own film-subsidy scandal involving a state senator, Ron Calderon, who headed the select committee on film and television and was a member of the California Film Commission. Indicted on 24 felony charges, and facing a maximum sentence of 396 years in federal prison, Calderon is accused of accepted cash bribes from an undercover FBI agent who he thought was associated with an independent film studio. In exchange, he agreed to advocate for an extension of the film tax credits.
And then, of course, there’s the fund-raising hook. Hollywood scratches a politician’s back? The politician scratches Hollywood’s back:
Politicians also use their support for incentives, or the threat of removing them, to induce political contributions for Hollywood beneficiaries. For example, in another Sony an email dated January 6, 2014, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “people” request Sony commit to raising $50k by July of 2014. The email continues, “$50k is a heavy lift since most of it needs to come from individual contributions (only $5k can come from corp.)” There are then several other emails from Sony’s head of government affairs soliciting contributions. In one of them he notes “Thanks to Governor Cuomo, we have a great production incentive environment in NY…Because of all of this, I think it’s important to significantly support his reelection efforts…”
So, notice that there are three parties at work here — but only two of whom are actually represented. Cuomo gets campaign funds he wants. Hollywood gets tax breaks they want. It’s just the taxpayers who aren’t represented and get shafted.
And, as Koopman notes, each year the MPAA sends out a celebratory email highlighting just how much the studios have been able to fleece from taxpayers:
As you have requested annually, attached is the State Government Affairs Department Annual Report for 2013. As you will read, this year MPAA saved the member companies collectively an estimated $110.08 million in corporate tax liability on an annual basis and approximately $86 million in potential regulatory, administrative, compliance and legal fees, also annualized, as a result of accomplishing legislative objectives in the states.
Since 2007, the aggregate annual savings secured by MPAA for the member companies in connection with key corporate state tax legislation is approximately $439.08 million. This is a result of the enactment of single sales factor apportionment in California, and New York City as well as favorable advertising and licensing corporate tax sourcing formulas adopted in North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana.
In addition, states awarded an estimated $1.5 billion in production tax credits in 2013, according to the Los Angeles Times, which MPAA either was engaged in enacting or keeping in place. The majority of those credits went to MPAA member companies as a result of motion picture and television location production in various states, with per project savings ranging from 10 to 30 per cent.
We had another successful year thanks to the hard work of Melissa Patack, Angela Miele, Sarah Walsh, Brian Cohen and Carlin Scrudato, as well as all of your tremendous support, engagement, and encouragement. Also, special thanks to the executives on the state tax, legal and IP working groups, whose expertise and involvement is invaluable. As you know, our contract advocates in the 50 states, who are critical to our success, work tirelessly for MPAA and the member companies. Our coalition partners also played major contributing roles, in particular NATO, DGA, SAG, IATSE and Teamsters.
I don’t begrudge the MPAA/studios doing this. Of course, they’re going to scrounge for free money from the states who are willing to give it. But it seems problematic given how these programs time after time after time have been shown to be massive failures, often leaving states in serious trouble. At the very least, it seems to deserve deeper scrutiny by the public and government officials as to exactly why states are so ready to hand out this kind of money.