Five years after it cut its last check to a Hollywood production company, the District government is finally back in the movie business—for a little while, at least. The city has made $1.2 million in tax rebates available to film and television producers who bring their projects here, the first time since 2010 that the District is offering to underwrite the movie industry.
The District has stayed away from handing out film incentives—which local governments around the country use to compete for the investment of big Hollywood productions—since the making of James L. Brooks’s 2010 romantic comedy How Do You Know?, a critical and commercial failure that received $2 million from the DC government when it filmed some of its scenes here. A study released in late 2013 found that for every dollar the District spent on film incentives, it got back only 44 cents.
Since then, almost all of the commercial movie and television business Washington has attracted has been by productions getting quick, establishing shots of the city’s skyline or interstitial scenes of fictional presidential motorcades rolling by, while most Washington-set titles do the bulk of their work in states with robust incentive programs. (House of Cards and Veep are filmed almost entirely in Maryland, which will have given the shows more than $60 million between the 2012 and 2016 fiscal years.)
But producers have stayed away from DC for the most part because there are no givebacks from the local governments and because filming in Washington often involves wrangling permits from local and federal authorities. (To say nothing of the fact that audiences and critics often don’t end up caring that much when the role of “Washington” is played by Baltimore or Atlanta.)
The District allocated the $1.2 million for film incentives in its 2015 budget, which went into effect last October, but it took a recent regulatory fix to make it legal to start handing out money. The incentive fund will offer production companies that spend at least $250,000 here cash rebates of up to 42 percent for taxable production expenditures, 30 percent for personnel expenditures, and 25 percent for infrastructure investments.
While the $1.2 million being offered by DC’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development is not much compared to the $25 million Maryland will give out in the current fiscal year, officials say it should be enough to entice some attention. “We’ve gotten a lot of interest,” says film office spokeswoman Leslie Green.
Green says her office has reached out to 20 production companies that have previously asked if DC will offer film incentives again, including HBO, which produces Veep. She also admits that $1.2 million might not stretch that far. “It could be one production we give it to, it could be five,” she says.
But even if producers get interested in doing business in DC again, it might not be for very long. A group of DC Council members last week introduced legislation that would move $450,000 in the city’s fiscal 2016 from film incentives to home inspections. If it goes through, the film office will have to fast-track any money it intends to give out.
“We want to make these decisions pretty quickly in the next couple months,” Green says.