News & Politics

Maryland Lawmakers Bow to “House of Cards” Incentive Demands

The state budget approved on Saturday cuts non-profit arts grants in order to keep the Netflix series from moving out.

Grants for non-profit arts organizations caught the express train at Cathedral Heights. Photograph by Nathaniel Bell for Netflix.

Just like the members of Congress who cave to every one of Frank Underwood’s whims on House of Cards, Maryland legislators agreed to pony up the financial incentives the Netflix series’s producers wanted in exchange for keeping their production in the state. And they found the money with an Underwoodian twist.

Maryland’s film incentive fund will return to its previous level of $18.5 million under a state budget passed on Saturday after Maryland legislators moved $2.5 million out of a fund geared toward funding non-profit arts organizations. Governor Martin O’Malley had originally proposed $7.5 million for film incentives, but lawmakers scrambled to increase that figure after Media Rights Capital, which produces House of Cards in Baltimore and nearby Harford County, said it might relocate the show if it didn’t continue to get a consistent sum back from the state after receiving $26 million over the first two seasons. The lobbying effort even included a cocktail party last month featuring Kevin Spacey, who plays the duplicitous Underwood.

The Maryland Film Office boasts that production on the first two seasons of House of Cards pumped $250 million into the local economy, but the state’s arts advocates aren’t thrilled by the reallocation of funds from non-profit grants to big-budget television production. The boost to film incentives zeroed out the Special Fund for the Preservation of Cultural Arts, a program designed to help homegrown arts organizations recover from the last decade’s recession.

“We’re pretty stunned,” says John Schratweiser, the president of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, an advocacy group in Baltimore. “It’s a blow and it’s really unexpected and it happened late at night. I don’t want to be Chicken Little, but we could see organizations that could fail as a result.”

While Maryland’s main arts grant fund is intact, Schratweiser says the depletion of the special fund could damage the organizational capacity of larger institutions like Strathmore and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and smaller groups like Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Ranier.

A spokeswoman for Media Rights Capital did not respond to a request for comment on the new Maryland budget. Besides House of Cards, the pumped-up incentive program will also benefit HBO, which filmes Veep on a soundstage in Columbia.

Maryland re-upping its production incentives also stomps on DC Council member Vincent Orange’s dream of luring House of Cards to do more in the District than the occasional establishment shot. But Orange isn’t getting much support from his fellow DC government officials, with Mayor Vince Gray’s proposed budget for the 2015 fiscal year cutting the city’s film incentive program by $3 million. During a Council hearing today about the budget, Orange berated Victor Hoskins, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, over the cuts. But according to Washington City Paper, the DC film office gave up in February when it was apparent Maryland would give in to House of Cards.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.