2014-02-21 / Columns

Politics & other Mistakes

Money and movie stars
By Al Diamon

Maine desperately wants to be cool.

Not clueless cool like “Portlandia,” the TV series about the other Portland. Not phony, bad-boy cool like the recently delinquentized Justin Bieber. Not Eurotrashy cool like, well, Euro-trash.

The trouble is, real cool doesn’t mix well with desperation. As all truly cool people – Thelonious Monk, Hunter S. Thompson, Maurice Sendak, Satchel Paige – have demonstrated, you can’t strive or beg for coolness. You have to, well, stay cool. Also, like the aforementioned, it helps to be dead.

I suppose we could all dress in berets, dark glasses and biker boots, and start hanging around cemeteries, but that’s likely to get the state labeled (best case scenario) eccentric or (worst case scenario) morbid.

Still, either one might land us a cameo on “Portlandia.”

With its every effort to achieve coolness thwarted by being alive and being home to the wrong Portland, this state has little choice but to resort to a decidedly uncool alternative. It has to attract moviemakers.

People in the film industry are not cool. They’re self-obsessed, rude and inclined toward paranoia and hypochondria. Like Howard Hughes, but without the money.

And it’s that last shortcoming that offers Maine an opportunity to lure the pseudo-cool. Making movies costs big bucks, and, like all true American entrepreneurs, film producers prefer to obtain that cash the old-fashioned way – by having the government give it to them.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, tax incentives for movie companies are offered by 45 states, including this one.

Qualified productions (those that spend at least $75,000) can expect Maine to refund 12 percent of the wages paid to local workers they hire and 10 percent of the salaries of employees they import.

Investors in the film will pay no state income tax on the profits. And materials, fuel and electricity for the operation are all exempt from sales tax, while the director, cast and crew will pay no lodging tax on their rented accommodations.

As a result, Maine has hosted such notable productions as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (although that was in 1918, when rebates weren’t a factor), “Peyton Place” (also pre-incentives), “Creepshow 2,” “Pet Sematary” and “The Whales of August” (notable for less blood than the preceding two films, but far more gut-wrenching attempts at Maine accents).

Even so, this state’s rebates are pitiful when compared to places like Massachusetts and New York that refund 25 to 30 percent of spending. But in 2013, our paltry givebacks were still sufficient to convince the producers of 16 films to spend about $4.7 million in Maine.

The state’s Film Office claims that for every dollar in incentives the state paid out, it realized a return of $40. That amounted to more than $120 million in free money.

That’s very cool.

Or it would be if it weren’t more than a little misleading.

A 2012 study by the Tax Foundation found that incentives for movie companies nationwide produced an average of 30 cents in new taxes for every buck in old taxes that was given away to Hollywood moguls. In other words, Maine spent about $3 million in public funds last year to earn a return of less than $1 million.

By that accounting method, “The Lone Ranger” was a box office smash.

“Policymakers think [tax rebates for films] are a little bit sexy, and they can be massaged as a tax cut,” Scott Drenkard of the Tax Foundation told USA Today. “But it doesn’t comport with the economic evidence that these tax credits in particular don’t have really tangible benefits to them.”

The Legislature, faced with a budget deficit estimated at $70 million, has taken a hard look at these figures and decided to do the only sensible thing: seriously consider spending more on film incentives. A fter learning that a sound stage in South Portland (occupying a publicly owned building for a ridiculously low rent) was closing because of lack of business, lawmakers began pushing a bill to increase the state’s tax rebates for film production to 25 percent, which is in line with nearby states that can afford to lose even more money investing in the movies.

Not all nearby states, though. Connecticut, which had a rebate program roughly comparable to Maine’s, has suspended it for two years because of budget constraints. This means there may never be another remake of “Cannonball Run” or “The Stepford Wives,” let alone an updating of “Bikini Bloodbath.”

In Maine, though, the future beckons. Once those giveaways are increased, it’s only a matter of time before some TV network comes begging for taxpayer money to start production of a series called “The Other Portlandia,” and the movie tycoons ask us to underwrite “Uncle Tom’s Condo.”

Maybe we could even steal a remake of “The Ice Storm” away from Connecticut.

That would be one kind of cool.

“You fool,” said Sweet Dick Willie in “Do The Right Thing,” “you’re 30 cents away from having a quarter.” Email your two cents worth to me at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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