L.A. looks at tax breaks to keep Hollywood from straying
Tired of being spurned by more appealing suitors, the city of Los Angeles is hoping new tax breaks will catch the wandering eye of Hollywood’s filmmakers.
On Tuesday, the City Council asked the city attorney to draft an ordinance that would reduce the entertainment production tax paid by companies that shoot TV shows, feature films and commercials in L.A. The city also is exploring the idea of offering production companies a rebate on the 1% portion of the state sales tax that it receives.
The moves, along with offering free parking on city-owned lots and expediting the permitting process, are just the latest steps by the city to make itself more film friendly as it struggles to keep entertainment jobs from fleeing the state.
L.A. faces growing competition not only from London and Canadian cities Vancouver and Toronto, but increasingly other U.S. cities and states, dozens of which offer tax credits and rebates to filmmakers. Locally, neighboring municipalities such as Culver City also are exploring ways of reducing the tax load for entertainment companies.
Although California’s new film tax credit has slowed some of the production migration, tax credit funds are limited and already have been exhausted for the current year. The state program also exempts commercial producers, who account for a major share of local production.
Not surprisingly, commercial producers have spearheaded the push to lower the cap on the entertainment production tax. Southern California remains the largest center for commercial production in the country, but its share of the pie has been shrinking, falling to 48% in 2009 from 54% in 2007, according to a recent survey by the Assn. of Independent Commercial Producers.
“The city cannot wait for the state to act,” David Phelps, the group’s director of external relations, wrote in a recent letter to the city. “We must stem the tide of runaway production to states like New Mexico, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania and balance the scales of the economy.”
Currently, the city assesses a flat fee of $145 on production activity up to $2.5 million and $1.30 for each additional $1,000 in production costs over $2.5 million. The proposal would raise the minimum tax threshold from $2.5 million to $5 million and reduce the maximum tax a production company would pay to $9,245 from $12,495
The producers association says that the change would provide significant tax relief to many of the 355 production companies in L.A., most of which spend $2.5 million to $5 million annually.
City staff are still studying what the proposed sales tax rebate would cost, but the change in the production tax credit would result in about $1 million in lost tax revenue, the city’s chief legislative analyst, Gerry Miller, estimated in a recent report. L.A. currently collects $3 million annually from the production tax.
But Miller added that the change in the tax code could eventually generate additional tax revenue by making it more attractive for companies to do business here. The producers group contends that the change in the tax code would have a “negligible impact” on the city’s tax base, citing how production tax revenue initially dipped but then grew steadily after the city lowered taxes for production companies in 2005.
The idea of giving Hollywood producers tax breaks would seem to be a tough sell in the current climate, given that the city is facing a projected deficit of $318 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Nonetheless, the idea has garnered strong support in City Hall, where council members face heavy pressure to do more to halt the migration of film and TV jobs.
“One of the first things that production companies look at is the tax situation,” said City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who has backed the tax cuts and other initiatives aimed at helping the film industry. “Frankly, we need to be more competitive.”
Various labor groups including the Screen Actors Guild, Teamsters and the Directors Guild of America also support lowering the production tax cap, as does the Motion Picture Assn. of America.
“There is so much competition for film production,” said Melissa Patack, the MPAA’s vice president of state government affairs. “This sends a message that L.A. aggressively wants the business and the jobs that are sustained by it.”