An Industry Is Born: Closeup Of 5 Years of Film Tax Credits

"Taxpayers aren't getting as big a bang for the buck as the studies that the states release show," said Thomas Cafcas, a researcher at the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Good Jobs First. "It's really a free-for-all. You had some states subsidizing work that was done out of state. … There have been some very troubling instances of fraud and abuse of film tax credits that have emerged."

Norfleet and other backers of the credit say Connecticut has more stringent rules than, say, Louisiana. For example, all productions here must do at least some of their work in a permanent studio — a rule that was added in 2011.

"We would love to have as many feature films come here as possible, but we recognize that television is our bread and butter; television and sports entertainment media," Norfleet said. "The dollars are shifting from feature films to TV."

And to digital. Blue Sky Studios, the animation firm that made the "Ice Age" series and "Rio," collected $61 million in tax credits after moving just a few feet into Greenwich from White Plains, N.Y., in 2008.

Blue Sky officials didn't return calls seeking comment for this column. With a California-style culture that combines L.A. movie glitz with Silicon Valley tech, this firm is a tough one to measure when it comes to boosting the Connecticut economy. The firm has more than 500 people paid an average of more than $100,000 a year, so it's great for the tax base, but it's closer to Armonk, N.Y., than any town center in Connecticut, including Greenwich — so its benefit to Connecticut commerce is less than that of a business in, say, Bristol.

Speaking of ESPN, the sports network juggernaut was long established when the tax credits started, of course. ESPN claimed $56 million in credits, a figure that will jump dramatically with the network's futuristic, $190 million Digital Center 2 — the largest building on the campus, set to open in 2014. That total included $6.2 million in 2007 for the miniseries "The Bronx is Burning," but the rest of the credits, an ESPN spokesman said, were for buildouts at the Bristol campus.

"It's been a big factor as we've expanded our facilities," said Mike Soltys at ESPN. "We have other options. … Every single visitor who comes here says, 'I can't believe how much this place has grown since I was last here.'"

ESPN and Blue Sky have both received other state aid connected with adding jobs.

And World Wrestling Entertainment, a Stamford stalwart, put a headlock around $37 million in credits, mostly for post-production work, turning tapes of live events into TV shows. The company, which is publicly traded, has grown from about 575 employees at the start of 2011 to more than 700 as it prepares to launch its own network.

The credits are a factor in WWE decisions on whether to expand in Stamford, said George Barrios, the chief financial officer, but it's not possible to say how crucial they've been.

Local Excitement

The fact that Linda McMahon, the former WWE CEO and wife of the current chairman, Vince McMahon, opposed the exact credits her company received in her recent campaign for U.S. Senate was an irony lost on no one. She was right to speak her mind and the company was right to take the credits, much of it under her watch.

But the irony leads to a broad question: With critics on the right as well as the left, why can't Connecticut measure the results and target the program to attract exactly what it wants, chiefly bricks-and-mortar, TV and digital enterprises?

Measuring the results will require an expensive study, which should happen, and it should be fully public. But targeting only those enterprises that add local, permanent jobs is not that simple, Norfleet said. It's all one industry with the same sets of skills, and it's impossible to separate films from TV when you're trying to build an industry.

"As you interact with companies, you start understanding that there are executives and there are decision-makers up the chain of command that are making decisions that are about feature film production and TV," he said.

The movie filming in Greenwich, a relatively low-budget project at $5 million or $6 million, was a natural for the town because the story takes place there. But producer Anthony Mastromauro said Thursday that he considered other locations. The tax credit helped make the decision easier, he said, along with the film office staff. "They're always very friendly and helpful and accommodating," he said.

Part of the payoff is not strictly economic. It's nice to have some excitement, even if it doesn't bring a fortune to the state. That's what Rocco Frank figured when his ComputerFox store in the Southport section of Fairfield made an appearance in the 2008 Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio movie "Revolutionary Road." Then again, the production basically shut down businesses on the main drag for several days after paying a stipend to the owners.

"We were kind of happy to see that we would be taking part in a movie, but we were really thrilled to see them leave," Frank said. "I think it was more exciting for the kids and the teenagers. ... As a business owner, it's a little different."

Lawmakers and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy should, and probably will, tighten the rules further — preferably in the arena of Hollywood film subsidies.

Meanwhile, Norfleet talks about studios that have taken root or expanded here: Televerse, Triple Threat, Palace, Sonalyst. A former producer in New York, he sounds like a wheeler-dealer from central casting when he adds coyly, "there are other folks that I can't talk about right now."