NC taxpayers invest in the movies

Posted March 22, 2012
Updated March 23, 2012

— Movie fans of a certain age know “Dirty Dancing” is a story of young love set in New York’s Catskill Mountains. But it was filmed further south – at a resort in Virginia and in areas around Lake Lure near Asheville.

Producers planning a remake of the film say they'll return to the region, including some locations in North Carolina, for one reason: money.

“New York is not even being considered for that movie,” said Timothy Bourne, a Wilmington-based producer who also serves on the North Carolina Film Council. Sure, New York, Virginia and Tennessee have locations that might work for the film.

“None of those places were an option based on one criteria, and one criteria only: what they offered in tax incentives,” Bourne said.

Of at least 44 states with some sort of government-funded program designed to lure movie productions, North Carolina ranks among the 10 most generous. Along with Louisiana and Georgia, North Carolina is one of the top three players in the southeast.

When North Carolina boosted its offers to film companies starting in 2011, the state rekindled a movie-making boom that is poised to continue for some time.

But critics question whether the state should use tax dollars to help bankroll Hollywood productions, such as “The Hunger Games,” which opens in theaters this Friday.

"The Hunger Games" producers spent $60 million in the state, according to the North Carolina Film Office. If an audit by the N.C. Department of Revenue confirms that number, the production company will receive a tax credit worth roughly $15 million.

Film boosters say without that kind of inducement, neither “The Hunger Games” nor any other movie would film here, and many of those who make their living in the industry would be out of work.

“It factors in immediately, in most cases before anything else ever gets done,” Bourne said.

North Carolina's program plays out as refunds

Films, television shows and commercial productions that spend more than $250,000 in the state are eligible for a tax credit worth 25 percent of what they spent in the state up to a maximum of $20 million.

Movies that have gotten tax breaks include “Talladega Nights,” “Nights in Rodanthe” and “Piranha 3D.” The long-running television show “One Tree Hill” has also gotten state backing, as did an unnamed medical drama that filmed its initial episodes in 2010 but was never picked up by any network.

Movie, television and commercial producers spent a total of $221 million in North Carolina in 2011, roughly triple the spending in 2010, according to the North Carolina Film Office. Industry experts say the increase is almost solely attributable to an increase in the value of North Carolina’s film tax credit that went into effect Jan. 1, 2011.

YearDirect Spending1Qualified Amount2Credits Claimed2Credits Refunded2
Film incentive investments


$221 million$120.8 million$30.2 millionN/A
2010$75 million$47.5 million$9.3 million$5.2 million
2009$78.5 million$50.2 million$7.7 million$6.7 million
2008$91.9 million$75.8 million$11.5 million$9.6 million

1Source: NC Film Office
2 Source: NC Department of Revenue
3 2011 information incomplete and will change.

There are limits on what producers can claim as a “certified” expense that counts toward the credit. For example, only the first $1 million of an actor’s or director’s salary counts toward the movie production’s total for tax credit purposes.

Still, the credits more than wipe out the amount many productions owe in taxes. Since the credits are “refundable,” filmmakers get the difference between the amount of the credit and their tax bill in a check drawn on money collected from other taxpayers.

In 2010, North Carolina issued $9.3 million in film tax credits and wrote $5.2 million in refund checks. Numbers for 2011 won’t be available until audits are completed later this year.

Binker: Movie incentives have costs, benefits Binker: Movie incentives have costs, benefits

“It’s hard to argue that’s anything except a grant program that the government has decided to funnel through the tax code,” said Mark Robyn, an economist with the Tax Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based think tank that has written numerous reports critical of film incentives.

Robyn and critics like him take issue with how film incentive supporters calculate their benefits. But beyond those numerical questions, his most fundamental critique is that incentives merely push film productions from one state to another.

“Basically, you have states playing tug of war over a finite amount of productions,” he said.

Even if that’s the case, say film industry boosters, North Carolina should work hard to lure those productions.

“If you look at the crew positions, those are people who make $50,000 to $75,000 per year,” said Aaryon Syrett of the North Carolina Film Office.

Advocates tout jobs created

Syrett estimates that between movies, television shows and commercials, the industry supported 5,000 jobs in North Carolina last year. But many of those jobs were temporary. Movie extras may only work for as long as it takes to film a single scene and even skilled tradesmen won’t be needed after a production wraps after three-to-nine months.

But Syrett said that by bringing in multiple productions, the state provides steady work.

“You have one film, and then you keep rolling over to the next and the next and the next. So it is full-time employment for people in as much as we can keep these films going over and over,” he said.

NC Film Commission Director, Aaron Syrett Web only: Film commission says movies mean jobs for NC

Movie productions film throughout the state, but the industry has two big geographic clusters. Wilmington is home to a EUE / Screen Gems Studios. The massive complex provides the infrastructure needed for big budget pictures like "Iron Man 3," which is scheduled to begin filming in May. 

Winston-Salem is home to the North Carolina School of the Arts, which has produced artists who call North Carolina home and are filming here.

Those geographic ties provide a defense for the film incentive credit even among self-described fiscal conservatives who deride other state-funded inducements used to lure businesses.

“It is the only incentive that I’m in support of,” said Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican. He lauds the fact that film incentives are only issued after a production has spent money in the state.

“We’re one of the top-taxed states in the country. We have to pay bribes to get people here. It’s ridiculous,” Goolsby said. North Carolina will need to keep the film tax credit until it can rework its tax code, he said.

Other incentives critics are less forgiving of films. Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a Cary Democrat, observed that North Carolina expects to grant roughly $50 million on film tax credits for the 2011 tax year once all productions file reports and are audited. “That’s $50 million in a year when we were firing teachers and teacher’s assistants. We choose to subsidize the film industry at the expense of teachers and people who protect our air and water.”

The Tax Foundation and others, she points out, have found that film incentive programs spend more money than they spark in state tax revenue. Incentive backers say those studies only look at direct spending by film companies, and not the "multiplier effect" spending has as it moves throughout the wider economy.

Credit's future in question

North Carolina rose to prominence as a movie-making destination in the 1980s. But when other states began to use film incentives around 2003, North Carolina saw a drop in productions filming here.

Republican leaders were critical of the film tax credit when it was created in 2006 and argued against its expansion in 2010. However, Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg Republican, said lawmakers want to undertake a comprehensive rewrite of the state’s tax code, not examine credits one-by-one.

The soonest that rewrite could happen, Rucho said, would be in 2013, after elections this fall. Still, the Finance Committee Chairman said he is skeptical that the film credit delivers jobs as its boosters suggest.

“Whenever we look at film credits or other incentives, we need to know what it achieves and whether we receive a long-term benefit,” Rucho said.

It’s hard to pin down firm numbers about just how many people actually make a full-time living from the film industry. The Wilmington Regional Film Commission says it has a database of more than 700 professionals producers can tap for productions. That doesn’t count caterers, hoteliers and others who benefit.

And data from other states do suggest that productions would drop out of North Carolina should the state's incentive program end.

States compete in luring movies

From Jan. 1, 2006, to Dec. 31, 2010, Arizona offered filmmakers a tax credit similar to North Carolina’s. And during that time, movie productions like Will Ferrell’s “Everything Must Go” spent $109.5 million throughout the state.

When the tax credits ended, so did the attraction for movie producers.

“All of these studios basically have a pecking-order chart. They’ve got all the states ranked on where to go,” said Phil Bradstock, director of the Phoenix Film Office.

After Arizona’s law fell off the books, the state fell off those charts, he said. Some commercial and lower-budget television shoots have still come to the state, he said. But the major projects that spend tens of millions of dollars went elsewhere.

Arizona lawmakers are debating this month bringing back the credit after watching business go across the state line to New Mexico.

Rita McClenny, who heads Virginia’s film office, describes her state as a “bit player” in the movie business. That’s because Virginia’s incentives are limited when compared to North Carolina’s.

“We’re investors without the benefit of a back-end,” she said of states who grant movie productions incentives. Private investors who bankroll films, she said, are repaid with a percentage of the money a movie makes. But states are repaid only in the jobs a film creates and perhaps some publicity and after-the-fact tourism.

Tour 'Hunger Games' locations in NC Tour 'Hunger Games' locations in NC

McClenny said North Carolina isn’t in a position where it can afford to get rid of the credit. Doing so would leave North Carolina with empty sound stages and little to show for the money that has already gone out the door.

“If you’re not going to do it on a long-term basis, you shouldn’t do it at all,” she said.

As an added benefit, film industry professionals say locations that become famous through the movies generate tourist dollars. It may be too soon to tell if places used as a backdrop for the "Hunger Games" will draw travelers, but Syrett said that locations used in "Bull Durham" and "Last of the Mohicans" have helped generate tourism.

Avoiding the sweepstakes

Those who watched Bernie Mac play aging baseball star Stan Ross in “Mr. 3000” may have recognized Miller Park, the home of the Milwaukee Brewers, as a backdrop for the movie.

The rest of the movie, which was released in 2004, was filmed in Louisiana. Bourne said that movie was one of the first caught up in the film incentive “sweepstakes” in which a production moved based on a government subsidy. “The only reason we were there (Louisiana) was for the tax incentive program,” Bourne said.

In recent years, some states have dropped their film incentive programs, often because lawmakers didn’t like giving tax breaks to Hollywood producers as their economies struggled. Iowa suspended its program following a scandal that has seen a filmmaker sentenced to prison.

To be sure, there are some movies that don’t have a choice of where to film. Nowhere else can provide Seattle’s Space Needle or New York City’s Empire State Building, for example.

But for scripts with more flexibility and less recognizable settings, North Carolina can provide a wide variety of settings from the beach to the mountains and from the big city to rural fields.

And while Louisiana and Georgia offer more generous credits than North Carolina, the Tar Heel workforce and existing industry provides an added advantage.

Nationally, Michigan used to offer the most generous credits. But the state has since put its program on hold, and some productions that might have gone there are coming to North Carolina and Georgia.

Syrett said you should not expect to see North Carolina film boosters argue for more generous incentives any time soon.

“We found our sweet spot and it’s working,” he said.

Productions, costs and credits

Choose a column heading below to compare the amount spent by various productions in North Carolina, and the tax benefit received.

Online Database by Caspio
Click here to load this Caspio Online Database.


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  • pbjbeach Mar 26, 2012

    I as a taxpaying citizens in this state was not aware that the state of north carolina was in the film industry an paying for incentive giveaways too the coporate instrest of the film indusrty withou there being a referumdum held an vote on an passed by the citizens of this state. there needs to be a law passed that would prohibit such incentives give aways thank you

  • pbjbeach Mar 26, 2012


    I am personaly in 1000% agreement with your posting on here the legisture need to write in to law laws that would prevent the incentives from being handed over to any industry tolocated here in this stae without there being the passage of some form of a referumdem put to a vote of the people/taxpayers across this state it is however taxpayers dollars that the state government is handing over to the coporate instrest to fund the vote buying process of that particular industry along with their campaign contrubutions to indivsual state politicians mostly of the republican persusion thank you

  • gratefultoGOD Mar 26, 2012

    What a disturbing movie! To think this is what we have stooped to for Entertainment! Read Revelations! I am so glad I have a Savior! DO you? He is knocking... let him in! +t+

  • pbjbeach Mar 26, 2012

    Is the states funding of this film having anything to do with the fact that i can get my state tax refund refunded to me as that i have been advised that there is no kind of a whole on my personal refund fro any reason other that i have been informed that by the state department of revenue respresentive that the state government is broke an without funding if they wouold quit allowing for funds to be toatlay wasted an hionaded out to the coporetae insterst then perhaps state taxpayers could actually begin receiving their tax refunds that are due to them from state government that has held their money all year long in the first place in the form of overpaid taxes thank you

  • ncpilot2 Mar 23, 2012

    While I'm as glad as anyone that big-budget films are made in N.C., the fact is a lot of the money spent actually leaves the state. The other aspect that disturbs me is the enormous press coverage (free advertising) that goes to these films while many talented filmmakers within the state get brushed off by the media and by the NC Film Office.

  • adrianmcdonald Mar 23, 2012

    @cdipierr, I agree that is how a normal tax credit works. However, NC film incentive is a refunable tax credit. Any excess credit over the tax liability is refunded in cash. Did you not see the chart in the article above? In 2008, for example, the state issued $11.5 million in tax credits and refunded $9.6 million back as a cash payment. Only $1.9 was used to satisfy actual tax liabilities. But the rest of the unused credit was refunded as CASH. Hence in your hypothetical with Hunger Games, if their tax liability is $0, they get a CASH refund from the DOR for $15 million. It's money off the top of the budget. Once people realize how these film incentive programs actually work, they not the big fans they thought they were.

  • cdipierr Mar 23, 2012

    @adrianmcdonald - I think you're confusing how a tax credit works. If you would normally pay $1000 in taxes and the government offers you a $500 tax credit, you pay $500 in taxes. If the government offers you $2000 in tax credit, you pay $0. The government does not pay you $1000.

    In the case of Hunger Games, the production was eligible for $15M in a tax credit (according to the article). But this means they paid some amount of taxes greater than that. For the sake of argument, we might say that they paid exactly $15M and their tax liability is now $0. In that case, the state still benefits from the injection of $$$ to the economy.

    If we didn't offer this incentive, it's certainly possible they would have shot here anyway, in which case great, we benefit $15M in taxes above what we did. But if they chose not to shoot here at all, you lose any tax revenue and any economic injection.

  • adrianmcdonald Mar 23, 2012

    @cdipierr, refunding cash for over 75% of unused credits (over $44 million) is not "potential lost revenue"....it IS $44 an actual $44 million expenditure of revenue. Sure, some of the wage dollars will be spent locally triggering indirect and induced impacts. Even if you apply the same multiplier they use in California for the film industry (2.65), the impact is limited to under $3 of additional impact. Even with all of those additional tax impacts, it's still around a 20-25 cent return on the dollar. Again, don't use the "pay nothing get nothing" talking point to confuse the issue. The State pays, a small part of the economy gets. I NC pays "nothing" for the incentive, it has $30.2 million in 2011 to spend on something else. Are tax dollars for social services, education and public safety....or for spending $1.7 million on Piranha 3DD?

  • me2you Mar 23, 2012

    I guess it makes sense to me...give them a break and you get taxes on the amount of money they bring with their productions...right?

  • cdipierr Mar 23, 2012

    "...That's a 75-cent loss on the dollar."

    This really misses the point. According to the article, they spent $60M in NC. If you assume all of this was wages, even assuming a low blend tax rate of 5%, then $3M is paid back in income taxes. However, the remaining $57M does not just magically disappear. People who were paid by the movie will take that money and buy things in NC which implies sales tax and other excise taxes (gas, etc.). In turn people who were paid by business where things were bought go on to buy other things and so on.

    The proper way to look at this is that NC government granted a $15M tax break (realize that they didn't fund anything, it's just potential lost revenue) and in turn was able to have $60M injected into the state economy, so amount of which will result in tax $$$.

    Had they not done this, that $60M would have been spent in another state. So the choices really were:
    * Pay nothing, get nothing
    * Pay nothing, inject $60M in economy