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Oscar nominees cash in on tax subsidies

Studies show breaks designed to attract moviemakers produce few economic benefits.

By MSN Money producer Jan 22, 2014 3:38PM

By Howard Gleckman,

Each of the nine movies nominated for this year's Oscar for best film may already have taken home a pile of tax subsidies. Seven brought back state goodies from the U.S. and two got cash for their work in the United Kingdrom. 

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street' © Paramount Pictures
And, according to data collected by the Manhattan Institute, the winner is ... "Wolf of Wall Street." The $100 million black comedy about (irony alert) over-the-top greed among sleazy stockbrokers got a 30 percent tax credit for making the movie in New York state.

The Empire State isn't even the most generous when it comes to doling out tax incentives to filmmakers. In Louisiana, moviemakers not only get a 30 percent credit against overall in-state production costs but also an additional 5 percent payroll credit. Even better, filmmakers with no state tax liability can monetize the credits by selling them to firms that do owe Louisiana tax or even selling them back to the state at 85 percent of their value. 

Though the Louisiana subsidies are more generous than New York's, the Oscar-nominated films made in that state – "12 Years a Slave" and "Dallas Buyer's Club" --  were much less costly than Wolf. So, at least by the Manhattan's Institute's calculations, the big-budget picture takes home the prize for fattest tax break. 

Of course, Martin Scorsese could have made Wolf of Wall Street in the Bayou State and perhaps saved another few million. Then again, setting the Wolf in Wyandotte may have lacked a certain verisimilitude. 

No doubt these credits are good for filmmakers. And I'm sure residents get a kick out of seeing Leonardo DiCaprio shooting a scene in their neighborhood (assuming they are not steamed over the related traffic jam). But is there an economic payoff in return for these substantial lost tax revenues as supporters claim? 

Most studies conclude there is not. 

Take Louisiana: From 2003 to 2012, the state provided $1 billion in tax subsidies for filmmakers. The number of movies made in the state increased from two in 2002 to 118 in 2010. But, according to an analysis by the Louisiana Budget Project (an affiliate of the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities), all that glitter ended up costing the state a bundle. 

In 2010, Louisiana spent $196.8 million on film tax credits. But according to an analysis by the BaxStarr Consulting Group, film production generated just $27 million in state tax revenues and $17.3 million in local revenues. 

The Tax Foundation notes the dramatic ups-and-downs of these state subsidies. In 2000, there were only three. By 2010, 40 states had adopted some form of tax break. But since that peak, nine states have abandoned these incentives. 

Filmmakers benefit from more than state tax incentives. They are also eligible for federal subsidies such as the Section 199 production deduction -- an incentive that was originally intended to benefit U.S. factories but which implausibly treats moviemaking as if it is manufacturing. It is impossible to know whether these movies got this federal tax break as well, though it is quite likely that at least some did. 

Subsidies to filmmakers are a classic example of race-to-the-bottom tax policy. They don't do much to create jobs or boost economic development. They do help trash the tax base. That reduces revenues and forces government to either raise tax rates or cut services -- steps that actually can harm the economy. Hollywood tax breaks are just the sort of scam that Jordan Belfort, the real Wolf of Wall Street, would appreciate. 

Thanks to Paul Caron at TaxProf blog for tipping me off to MI's Oscar analysis.

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