Budget deficits in past legislative sessions have made it difficult to convince lawmakers to fund film incentives, but as the state rebounds from the recession, Sarasota County Film and Entertainment Office Director Jeanne Corcoran said Tallahassee appears more receptive than ever to inject some funding into show business again. Just back from a trip to Tallahassee on behalf of Film Florida, Corcoran spoke with SRQ Backlot about the need for state incentives if the film industry is to survive in the Sunshine State.
You were just in the Florida Capitol lobbying for Film Florida. What is your top legislative agenda?
Film Florida is a trade organization with dozens of film commissions and people in the business. I’m vice chair of the Film Commissioners Council and I was up there with [Space Coast Film Commissioner] Bonnie King representing Film Florida on Tourism Day in Tallahassee. We are trying to show the connectivity between the film industry and the tourism industry. It is all interrelated. We use hotels and caterers and other services, and attractions are very important to us. And in return, film drives tourism because it puts our community’s face on big and little screens and in print ads. We had a great day last Wednesday and spread the word about Senate and House bills that are out there for improving film incentives. We need those to be compatible bills. There is great work going on in bills SB1640 and HB983, and it is encouraging to see people working together to bring compatibility to the bills so they serve a greater good for the state.
What are the important elements of the House and Senate plans for film incentives that you want to see in final legislation?
Each bill has good qualities. The House bill right now asks for $200 million in tax credits in the first year of funding. The Senate bill asks for $50 million. We would dearly love to have a $200-million tax credit infusion, but if that is not palatable in the Senate, having it come to $100 million in the first year and then having some longevity to the program would be wonderful. To have a budget promise of $50 million or more every year for at least five years, plus between $50 million and $200 million put down the first year, would be an accomplishment, especially since the state has been out of tax credits now for a year. I’m optimistic legislators in the House and Senate understand the big picture of the incentive program. Our studies show a return of at least $5.60 for every $1 of tax credits spent. Some studies show the return on investment is more than $20 for every $1. And in terms of gross domestic product for the state, the return is 15 to 1. If I said to you, you give me $1 and I will give you $15 in return, would you take that deal? It really is an amazing return on an investment, especially because this is through tax credits as opposed to a cash rebate or cash fund.
And how will these incentives work?
This is tax credits, not checks written out of the treasury. It’s not grants or subsidies. These are performance-based, after-the-fact programs, and filmmakers would get nothing in advance. It is not until after a production has performed, documented that and audited it twice that the credits are processed, and even then it’s not a check but a certificate the recipient has to broker and sell to have someone write a check from the private sector. They are bought by Florida businesses, which can benefit from the savings on tax payments and reduce tax indebtedness. This helps Florida businesses that are not related to film in any way, and that allows businesses to have growth, expand, buy more inventory and hire more people. It has a trickle down effect. That’s the beauty of it. It’s a great, rock solid investment.
How receptive are lawmakers to the message this year compared to the past, especially considering these incentives were allowed to dry up last year? This is the first year when they are expecting a surplus instead of a deficit in a long time.
The legislators are smart and know that these incentives have had a positive, dynamic effect. There is a great energy in the state right night about really continuing the vitality we are seeing and the growth in the economy. The numbers last year were good. Unemployment figures were getting better. The number of tourists is up. We are trying now to get around 100 million tourists, and every time a tourist sees Florida in a movie or a magazine, we see a chance for tourism to increase. More tourists are aware of us and driven to see us. I only spoke to one legislator last week who was hesitant aboutt supporting the bills, and that was because he had not read the bills yet. All of the other lawmakers I spoke to gave very positive responses. Of course, until everything is signed, sealed and delivered, no one knows what will happen. But everyone was much more receptive this year than last year, when the response was more cautious, negative and hesitant. The good news is this year there seems to be a budding vitality that is growing. And as far as industry, another strong position we saw was legislators wanting to cut taxes that do not support growth and strength and vitality and jobs. If taxes don’t produce jobs, they are on the chopping block, which is a good sign for us.
How important is the program in the Sarasota market in particular?
We have a couple projects each year, maybe more, that have gone after state tax credits. You have to have a budget for it. If a feature film spends over $625,000, it can qualify for the queue of tax credits. If it is a lower budget film with a budget under $625,000, it goes after a smaller queue. Commercials have to be bundled to have a total budget of at least $500,000. There are minimum levels of spending. Of course, in Sarasota we also have our own cash rebate incentives, which have a minimum spend of $1,000. You can get a 10 percent rebate and get back $100 on $1,000. If you spend $6,000 or more, you can get 12.5 percent back, and it goes up from there to the point where if you spend over $31,000, you can get 20 percent back. But it has to be qualified spending. We never reimburse for parties or alcohol or tobacco. There are a select few things that don’t qualify. And for our program it all has to be Sarasota County-centric—a person, place or thing from Sarasota County has to be used.