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More states balking at subsidizing outrageous films

On the heels of some Texans' qualms (OK, anger) about tax breaks for a satirical immigration-themed movie, comes news that other states also are more closely reviewing movies eligible for government money.

Michigan has decided not to provide tax money for the horror film The Woman, a sequel to the icky Offspring.

Movie production scene clapboard According to the New York Times, the state's film commissioner,Janet Lockwood, sent the director a note informing him that the film's extreme depictions of "realistic cannibalism; the gruesome and graphically violent depictions described in the screenplay; and the explicit nature of the script" were the main reasons for not providing it tax breaks.

And, oh yes, ""This film is unlikely to promote tourism in Michigan or to present or reflect Michigan in a positive light."

That's fine. Every state has the right to set whatever criteria it wants for use of public money.

But if residents and politicians thought that by dangling some tax dollars in front of a production company they'd automatically get a nice little travelogue for their states, then they obviously haven't paid much attention to how movies are made and which movies rake in the box office dough.

When art (high and low) and taxes collide: This is the basic problem with tax breaks for film and television projects.

What might be great aesthetically and fiscally sound from a commercial film standpoint usually  doesn't mesh very nicely with tax policy.

Throw in the divergent tastes of the movie-going public and the fact that everyone's a critic, and these types of subsidies become even more difficult to make work for all parties.

No movie maker with any integrity (or ego) is going to let a bunch of bureaucrats rewrite his script. If some state Senator doesn't like it, the film crew will just strike the set and move it to some other location. Just because the script says rural Texas, doesn't mean it has to actually be filmed in a Lone Star countryside. Movie magic and all that, you know.

And that's the problem. There's a lot of real estate out there, not just in the 28 United States with tax credits (and 16 other states with some sort of film incentives), but in Canada and Europe. That foreign competition (Toronto plus a little carefully dropped garbage as New York City) was the genesis of these tax breaks and it's still out there.

So a state has to decide what the real reason is for the tax break. Do you want to fund only movies that meet some specific guidelines. Or do you just want people coming into your state,  spending their money and hiring your residents so that cash can be pumped back into your economy?

If the reason for the tax break is economic, then drop the posturing about the type of films being made. Every flick has a good guy and a bad guy. Sometimes they're interchangeable. And some people like the ostensible bad guy better than the designated hero.

Good state, bad state, profitable state: Take, for example, one of my favorite TV programs, Breaking Bad.

The cable series focuses on an Albuquerque high school chemistry teacher who becomes a legendary methamphetamine cooker. He's the "good" guy (or started out that way); so is his young assistant, a recovering meth addict. Then there's the mostly out of the loop DEA and a sleazy lawyer and a pillar of the community who's really a drug kingpin.

You get the picture. And it's not necessarily a pretty one.

But New Mexico didn't nix payments for this project, which has gone on to win viewers and awards. The state just wanted to keep a group of its residents employed.

As the saying goes, there's no accounting for taste (or lack thereof). So quit worrying about what's being made. Worry about whether the subsidy is a valid expenditure of state taxpayer money.

And that brings us to the real issue. Is a tax break for film and television programs worth it?

In many cases, no. Some programs are mismanaged or overly generous. They simply don't provide good returns of the tax dollars handed out. Tax Update Blog details the Iowa film credit fiasco (sounds like a horror movie itself!).

So I challenge lawmakers to look not so much at the type of movies or TV shows that are being made in your backyard, but whether you crafted a worthwhile tax law to attract projects in the first place.

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Scott Allen

My stepson got some much-needed work as an extra on "Machete", which he promptly pumped back into the local economy. Would that money have been available, in Austin, if not for those subsidies?

This is a really, really slippery slope.

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