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The $2.5 million in tax incentives was appropriated for the biennium beginning Jan. 1, 2010, not 2001.

Would Spielberg's Lincoln biopic drain Virginia's film funds?

November 23, 2010 - 01:24 PM
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Will Virginia help Spielberg win another one of these? (Photo: Associated Press)

Virginia isn't one of those states waving hundreds of millions of dollars under the noses of Hollywood producers. Not too long ago — earlier this year, in fact — its Motion Picture Opportunity Fund contained a paltry $200,000. Then, in June, Gov. Bob McDonnell signed laws boosting the fund to $2 million and creating a $2.5 million refundable tax credit program. It was nothing compared to New York's $420 million, but it gave hope to local, independent filmmakers. At the time, Virginia Film Office spokeswoman Mary Nelson told me, "We're not going to be bringing in the huge-budget films with incentives like that. We're not talking about a lot of movie stars, but we're talking about a lot of people generating a lot of income."

Well, we might be talking about a lot of movie stars after all.

Steven Spielberg was in Richmond last week scouting possible locations for his long-gestating Abraham Lincoln biopic, which is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and will star Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president. And yesterday the Post reported, based on "several sources" in McDonnell's administration, that state officials have offered film incentives to Spielberg. (The sources appear to be anonymous, though Secretary of Commerce and Trade Jim Cheng is quoted as praising the General Assembly's support of film incentives.)

McDonnell's office directed me to Nelson, who declined to comment. "I will say," she added, "it's premature for any details to have solidified at all." Spielberg hasn't even confirmed that he'll shoot in Virginia, much less apply for tax credits. Whether he would qualify for such credits, however, is without question: Productions must spend only $250,000 in the state. The film office also has the right to deny a production's application, though that's unlikely. When I spoke to Rita McClenny, Virginia's film commissioner, months ago about the new tax credit program, she told me, "In a perfect world, we'd like to spread it around. But if an opportunity comes around that would have an incredible impact on Virginia, we may just go for it.”

So let's say Spielberg decides to film in Virginia next fall. And let's say he applies for tax credits. And let's say he qualifies. How much of that $2.5 million, which has been appropriated for the biennium beginning Jan. 1, 2010, would the Lincoln biopic consume? According to the law [pdf], films are credited 15 percent of "qualifying expenses" — goods and services, plus wages — or 20 percent if the production shoots in an economically distressed area. To drain the fund entirely, Spielberg would have to accrue $16.7 million in qualifying expenses. It's not unlikely: His last two films, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Munich, cost an estimated $185 million and $75 million, respectively.

Where Spielberg won't find any money, though, is in the Motion Picture Opportunity Fund, a more straightforward grant program. The entire $2 million, which became available July 1 and was also appropriated for the biennium, has already been committed to the following seven films, according to Nelson:

Unanswered Prayers (produced by Garth Brooks and starring Patty Duke; it premieres on Lifetime on Nov. 29)

• Amateur Hour

• Projectionist

Lake Effects (starring Jane Seymour and Skyline's Scottie Thompson)

• For the Glory

• Alone Yet Not Alone

At the Top of the Pyramid (starring Steve Guttenberg and directed by Lawrence Jordan, who last shot Phish 3D)

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