Amid backlash to Georgia’s new voting law last week, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy saw an opportunity: On April 1, he sent a letter to studio heads trying to woo production out of Georgia and into the Garden State. New Jersey has a better record on voting rights, he said, adding that the two states offer a similar 30 percent tax credit and New Jersey offers a 40 percent credit on studio construction projects.
What Gov. Murphy declined to address is that Georgia has an uncapped incentive program — and most of all, a massive production infrastructure built over two decades.
At this point, extracting Hollywood from Georgia is all but impossible: Too much time has been invested, and too much money is available. No other state presents a viable alternative, which may explain the still-muted response from studios over the voting laws.
More than a decade after Georgia launched its production tax credit program, Marvel shoots its films and TV shows at the 18-stage Trilith Studios. In 2015, Tyler Perry converted Atlanta’s retired Fort McPherson Army Base into his 330-acre Tyler Perry Studios, the largest production studio in the U.S.
According to a 2018 study by FilmLA, Georgia’s 2 million square feet of stages were second only to California, which has 5.2 million square feet. Space in Georgia has increased since then: Today, there’s 1.8 million square feet of stages and 1.8 million of warehouse space, according to a Georgia Department of Economic Development spokeswoman, who said state officials are expecting another 1 million square feet of stages to be built within the next year.
By contrast, New Jersey has around 200,000 square feet of sound stages, according to data provided by the state’s Motion Picture and TV Commission. A spokesman said development is underway of additional studio space.
In 2018, Georgia ranked third among filming locations for theatrical features in the US with 36 movies, after California (62) and New York (57), according to FilmLA — a figure that doesn’t include streaming movies, TV series, or other entertainment.
Beyond infrastructure, the most alluring aspect of shooting in Georgia is its uncapped 30 percent tax credit. Georgia hands out as many credits as there are qualifying productions, issuing $870 million in incentives in 2019. New Jersey caps credits at $100 million annually.
“There’s a lot of infrastructure and a lot of investments that have gone into a $10 billion-per-year market in Georgia for film,” said Zachary Tarica, CEO of the Forest Road Company, an entertainment finance firm that lends against tax credits. “If all those jobs and all that money and all that leaves the state, it’s not going to help anyone. No one will win.”
Today, shooting in Atlanta or Pittsburgh or Vancouver is unremarkable; two decades ago, Hollywood derisively referred to these shoots as “runaway productions.” After Canadian production subsidies began extracting producers from Los Angeles and New York around 1998, other American states were inspired to find ways to capture some of those Hollywood production dollars for themselves.
However, many states found subsidies didn’t provide enough in return. Only 31 states have film tax incentive programs, down from 44 states less than a decade earlier. Among those states that kept their programs, a 2018 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures confirmed the trend of tightening requirements and creating caps. Louisiana, the first state to create tax credits in 1992, instituted caps in 2015; it now stands at $150 million.
Atlanta attorney Wilbur Fitzgerald, who lobbied the Georgia Legislature to implement incentives ahead of their passage in 2008, invoked a black-and-white photo of Marlon Brando participating in a Civil Rights demonstration in Mississippi. To his mind, the voting law controversy is all the more reason for celebrities to again use their stature to fight for Civil Rights.
“When you balance the infrastructure, the way the system has been working successfully for a number of years, you balance that against the possible results or benefits of a boycott, it just doesn’t make sense,” said Fitzgerald, who also has a long list of acting credits for film and TV productions based in Georgia and surrounding areas such as “Baby Driver,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” and the upcoming “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.” “What makes more sense is for those people who are here and those people who come to Georgia to film — come help us solve the problem.”
While tax incentives have spurred infrastructure development in states outside New York and Los Angeles, Gov. Murphy in his letter to studios suggested a move to New Jersey could offer something Georgia can’t: a creative hub that’s homegrown rather than a transplant.
“The talent pool in our Tri-State area is so deep, and the industry’s existence in Georgia so artificial, we expect that New Jersey will soon become the major production epicenter on the East Coast,” he wrote.
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