Mayoral hopeful Jack Evans is tired of seeing DC played in the movies and television by other cities that look nothing like Washington. The DC Council member’s latest campaign plank is to revive the city’s long-dormant film incentive fund to the tune of $25 million, much more than the program ever contained when it was funded.
Evans says it’s an unpleasant viewing experience when he sees TV series set in Washington that are actually filmed in places like Baltimore (House of Cards, Veep) or Charlotte, North Carolina (Homeland).
“We have as much to offer as Baltimore,” he says. “There’s no reason we can’t do that.”
In fact, what Baltimore offers that DC hasn’t in years are generous tax incentives and other givebacks to production companies that bring in actors and directors and hire local professionals. And since DC’s film incentive fund zeroed out after contributing more than $2 million for the 2010 dud How Do You Know, Charm City has taken off as a hub for TV production, producing thousands of jobs for electricians, carpenters, cameramen, and other below-the-line positions.
House of Cards, with its seamy depictions of murderous congressmen and weaselly reporters, was a particularly rough loss for the District. The Netflix series’ producers wanted to make the show here, but only if DC could put up $3.5 million for expenses such as hiring city residents to work on the show and hotel stays visiting cast and crew member. The Office of Motion Picture and Television Development had no money to give, but Maryland did.
“We’re looking for jobs in this city,” says Evans. “The movie industry does produce jobs.” But the way the business works now, only if states and cities are willing to front some of the costs.
According to the Maryland Film Office, production on the first season of House of Cards in 2012 created $147,560,000 in economic activity and 2,100 jobs. In return, the state gave back about $11.7 million in tax credits. This year, it tripled its film incentive fund to $22.5 million. Virginia has also been enjoying the spoils of its program, including $400 million in economic activity in 2011.
But building support for funding movie and television production might be tougher than Evans anticipates. The last Council member to attempt replenishing the District’s incentive fund, Vincent Orange, proposed in November 2012 to pay for it by collecting 1 percent of grants to real-estate contractors. Not surprisingly, representatives of the real estate industry were not enthused with the prospect of giving back some of their money to pay for movie shoots, and Orange’s idea died after one uncomfortable Council hearing.
Evans suggests funding the film incentive program with a cut of sales tax revenue, similar to how the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities is paid for. But the arts commission is well short of its full $22 million funding and was allocated only $8.2 million in the District’s budget in fiscal year 2014. Considering that and the tepid interest that previous attempts to reboot the film incentive fund, it’s difficult to see Evans’s proposal getting much traction.
It also doesn’t help that the last time the incentive program was funded, it was poorly managed. For every dollar DC gave How Do You Know, the city’s economy only got back 18 cents. Other productions like National Treasure: Book of Secrets produced better returns, but not enough to balance out the losses from the Reese Witherspoon-starring money pit.
But for a well-managed incentive program, the returns can be a perennial boon to the local economy. House of Cards recently wrapped its second season, and while Kevin Spacey and some of the show’s other stars recently filmed a few quick scenes in the District, when the series returns on February 14, binge-watchers will still be looking mostly at Baltimore. Can a city win an Emmy for best impersonation of another locale?