Florida tax rebate plan could backfire

Seeking to be family friendly, Florida may have learned a hard lesson in how not to be Hollywood friendly.

The Sunshine state startled the film industry recently when a bill was introduced in the state Legislature that would disqualify movies and TV shows that contained “nontraditional family values” from receiving a supplemental “family friendly” tax credit that’s been in effect for a couple of years.

The bill, unanimously endorsed last week by a key legislative committee, is part of a larger $75-million incentive program aimed at luring film and entertainment jobs to the state.

But critics have lambasted the family friendly portion of the package as potentially discriminatory, noting that it could disqualify movies such as “The Kids Are All Right,” this summer’s upcoming comedy about the children of a lesbian couple and their relationship with their father.


Hollywood’s chief lobbying arm also expressed disapproval.

“We believe the language that was first proposed raises some serious constitutional issues,” said Vans Stevenson, senior vice president of state government affairs for the Motion Picture Assn. of America. “We are working with the sponsors of the legislation to see if we can craft some language that would pass constitutional muster.”

Peter Dekom, a veteran Los Angeles entertainment attorney, said the bill, if enacted, would spark costly litigation and discourage filmmakers from shooting in Florida, where about 20 TV shows and films were shot in fiscal 2009.

“It could serve as a major deterrent to Florida,” Dekom said. “There are a lot of actors and high-profile producers who have a powerful belief in gay rights and equal treatment under the law.”

Responding to the furor, the Florida Senate is poised to remove the controversial language from the bill this week and the House is expected to follow suit.

No other state has a similar tax credit, though Texas comes close. Texas stipulates that it is not required to provide tax breaks on projects that contain “inappropriate content” or “content that portrays Texans or Texas in a negative fashion.”

The chief backer of the Florida bill, Rep. Stephen Precourt (R-Orlando), was unavailable for comment. In a recent interview with the Palm Beach Post, Precourt said the aim was not to target the gay community but to promote wholesome movies for family audiences.

“Think of it like Mayberry,” Precourt said, invoking the fictional community that was the setting for “The Andy Griffith Show,” the iconic 1960s sitcom. “That’s when I grew up -- the ‘60s. That’s what life was like. I want Florida to be known for making those kinds of movies: Disney movies for kids and all that stuff.”

Graham Winick, president of Film Florida, an organization that promotes the state’s film and entertainment industries, said the bill was about creating jobs, not restricting content. He noted that the controversial language involves a “voluntary credit,” not the state’s main incentive. “This is not about turning away projects,” he said.

To compete with states including Louisiana and Georgia that offer richer incentives, the proposed Florida law would beef up the current 15% production rebate to a 20% transferable tax credit for producers, as well as increase the additional family friendly tax credit to 5% from 2%. Since the family friendly credit debuted in 2007, six projects have been approved and two denied.

Currently, “family friendly” is defined for the tax’s purposes as content that would be considered suitable for children and did not exhibit “any act of smoking, sex, nudity, or vulgar or profane language.” The proposed change adds “gratuitous violence” and “nontraditional family values” to the definition but doesn’t explain those terms.

“We feel that the term ‘nontraditional family values’ is a way they could prohibit funding forany motion picture or TV program that has a gay in it,” said Ted Howard, executive director of Florida Together, a federation of groups that advocate for gay rights.

“We’re finding a lot of support to pull that language.”