“The Walking Dead” fan gear is displayed at the Atlanta Movie Tour headquarters in the Castleberry Hills neighborhood in 2019. The writer of this Op-Ed says Georgia’s film tax credits are not nearly worth their considerable cost to the state. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Opinion: Ga.’s film tax credits are big-budget flop

Since 2005, Georgia has offered tax credits to encourage in-state film production as an economic development strategy. On the surface, the incentive appears to work, attracting blockbuster productions like Black Panther and The Walking Dead, which hire local workers and firms whose spending spills over onto the broader economy. But like a clichéd movie script, this idyllic image is just a fantasy that masks a darker (and expensive) truth.

A key feature of Georgia’s film tax credits is that they are transferable. Every qualified dollar spent on filming within the state is eligible for up to a 30 percent credit toward tax liabilities; however, most productions don’t owe any taxes. Because the state accepts the credits in place of tax revenue, film studios sell their credits at a small discount to other Georgia taxpayers, who use them as vouchers to cover their own tax obligations. Georgians still incur the burden of taxes; but instead of depositing the funds in the state treasury, the revenue goes to out-of-state businesses. In practice, film tax credits are not a tax break for filming, they are an indirect subsidy that funnels Georgia taxpayer dollars to Hollywood producers.

The cost of film tax credits is enormous. Over the program’s history, the state has approved $5 billion in film tax credits. Georgia continues to issue increasingly more tax credits every year, and its obligations are uncapped. In fiscal year 2019, the Department of Revenue accepted $451 million in film tax credits instead of the revenue owed to the treasury. In addition, the state approved $860 million in new tax credits, which translates to $230 per Georgia household, or three percent of the state-funded budget.

Not only are film tax credits expensive, they do a poor job of promoting economic development. Tax credits have increased filming in Georgia, which is not surprising: if the state subsidized 30 percent of the cost of manufacturing toilets, Georgia would be the toilet capital of the world. The question is if there are better uses for $860 million, such as education, healthcare, infrastructure, or returning the funds to taxpayers. The answer is a resounding YES. Many researchers have studied the economic impact of film incentives and found little evidence of positive returns to this development strategy. For example, a recent study in the Journal of Economic Geography reported that the return on investment to Georgia’s film tax credits was 30 cents on the dollar — a negative return on investment — similar to other states that offer film incentives.

The failure of film tax credits to promote economic growth shouldn’t be surprising. Unlike most development incentives, which encourage new businesses to relocate to Georgia and employ local labor, film tax credits attract temporary visits from mostly California-based workers who spend much of their earnings outside Georgia. A recent analysis by the Department of Audits and Accounts found that 88 percent of film tax credits went to non-Georgia companies, and 53 percent of all labor income in the film industry went to nonresident workers. While select local businesses and workers may benefit from the subsidies, a majority of the Georgia taxpayers’ funds flow out of state; thus, spillovers onto the entire economy are limited.

Movie stars around town and local landmarks on the big screen are fun to see, but they aren’t making us any richer. The economic benefits of film tax credits appear to be as real as the zombies stumbling down Georgia streets on your television screen. It is time for lawmakers take a hard look at Georgia’s film tax credits and consider curtailing or eliminating this wasteful and ineffective economic development policy.

J.C. Bradbury is Professor of Economics and a faculty affiliate of the Bagwell Center for the Study of Markets and Economic Opportunity at Kennesaw State University.

Sources:

Owens, M. and Rennhoff, A. Motion picture production incentives and filming location decisions: A discrete choice approach. Journal of Economic Geography (in press). (https://academic.oup.com/joeg/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jeg/lby054/5205905)

FY 2019 film tax credits accepted from Georgia Tax Expenditure Report for FY 2021 (page 22): https://opb.georgia.gov/document/document/tax-expenditure-report-fy-2021/download

FY 2019 film tax credits approved from Performance Measures Report, Fiscal Year 2021 (page 37) : https://opb.georgia.gov/document/document/fy-2021-agency-performance-measures/download

Research:

Bradbury, J.C. A Comment on Georgia Department of Economic Development Report: “The Economic Impact of the Film Industry in Georgia,” January 2020. (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3526169).

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