- That's right, District residents: You paid for this.
Barely more than a week ago, a certain D.C.-based film was released into the wilds of the American cinematic landscape. Made by a respected director (James L. Brooks), the movie starred a bona fide legend (Jack Nicholson), a major star (Reese Witherspoon), and two funny, familiar faces (Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd). But bruised by critics, including me, it floundered at the box office, earning only $7.5 million on opening weekend. Oh, and did I mention that the film cost $120 million to make? All of which is severely funny, especially if you were required to sit through the 120 minutes of the rom-com hell known as How Do You Know.
But if you live in D.C. proper, as I do, you might stop laughing when you learn that your District stewards gave $1.4 million in taxpayer dollars to How Do You Know, which filmed in Adams Morgan last year. That's about one percent of the film's budget — a pittance for Columbia Pictures, which produced the movie, but a significant sum to District agencies facing major budget cuts. D.C.'s film office would argue that the money was necessary to ensure that How Do You Know filmed here. Opponents would argue that the screenplay was set in D.C. — Wilson plays a Nats reliever, Rudd an executive facing securities fraud — so where else would they shoot?
Well, in Pennsylvania for starters. How Do You Know spent far more time there than in D.C., having been courted with nearly $19 million in tax credits. It seems Philadelphia makes for a decent stand-in for the District (and for Annapolis, too). It's this imbalance in film incentive budgets — this escalating arms race between states — that has taxpayers, governors, and employees of the film industry worried. Some politicians argue that such incentives spur local economic activity. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is a believer: This year, he approved a $2.5 million tax credit program and boosted the state's rebate program to $2 million. The latter, though meant to last two years, is already dry, while the former could go entirely to Steven Spielberg's forthcoming Lincoln biopic.
There are plenty of detractors, too, though none as vocal as the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, a D.C. think tank. Last month, it released a study claiming that a paltry return on investment makes film incentives, however small in amount, a waste of taxpayer money. The MPAA begged to differ, of course. So who's right? It's impossible to assess, with certainty, a film production's short- and long-term benefits to the local economy, so this argument may never be settled.
But there are certain facts worth noting. D.C., for instance, can never compete with enormous film-incentive packages from states like Pennsylvania and New York. Neither can Virginia, with its current incentive programs. (At last check, Maryland's program was without funding.) It's likely, then, that Hollywood films will continue to abandon the mid-Atlantic for more generous states, but that doesn't mean the local filmmaking community will be any less vibrant. Virginia's incentives have been a boon to independent filmmakers, and D.C. will be fine as long as it's still home to the White House, Capitol Building, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial. That's what brought Michael Bay here for Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and we didn't pay him a single taxpayer penny.