It doesn't make sense to drop out of a race when you're running ahead of the pack, yet Pennsylvania would be doing just that if it eliminates its $75 million tax incentive for filmmakers and TV producers.
Since July 2007, the program has allowed movie and television productions that spend at least 60 percent of their budgets in the state to get back up to 25 percent in tax credits. And business has been booming. Pennsylvania is among the top five states in attracting filmmakers in a competitive field; 36 states have similar incentive programs aimed at luring film industry business to their towns.
Yet some lawmakers looking for ways to cut spending have decided the tax incentive is a luxury the state cannot afford. They consider it a gift to Hollywood rather than the economic development tool that it is.
The Pittsburgh Film Office reports that film production in southwestern Pennsylvania was responsible for 25,000 hotel room nights last year alone. A dozen film and TV productions have been launched in the past 18 months, which generated $68 million in local spending, and the number of full-time members of the stagehands union local doubled to more than 200. Community College of Allegheny County even started a program to train people for film industry jobs.
For this region, the number of productions from 2006 through 2008 alone equaled the number shot here in the previous decade, from 1995 to 2005.
When films and television programs are being made in the region, actors and crew members all need to eat, get hair cuts and rent cars. Director Kevin Smith, who filmed "Dogma" and "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" locally, temporarily moved here with his wife and enrolled their daughter in a local school.
And about that "Porno," which has led to some complaints about the moral character of films produced with Pennsylvania's tax incentive: The R-rated movie is a romantic comedy about the making of a porn film and, while it includes off-color material and is not a movie for kids, it is certainly not pornography.
It's true that films and TV shows were shot in Pittsburgh before the tax credit was approved. But in the not-too-distant past, only a few states were offering incentives. Now a majority of states do, with neighboring Ohio working out details for its own program.
The competitive climate has changed. Without tax incentives for the film industry, all that business will go someplace else.
Michigan last year approved some of the most generous rebates in the nation, and Clint Eastwood moved the filming of "Gran Torino" from Minnesota to Detroit. There, Gov. Jennifer Granholm explained it best in an interview with The Wall Street Journal:
"We're building a whole new industry here in Michigan. You have to invest in order to grow and we are investing in a new sector in our economy."
That's as true in Pennsylvania, where lawmakers will be smart if they keep the tax incentive program for filmmakers. Anything less would be truly obscene.