Calling the Bluff on Film Incentives for “Bluff City Law”
BY RON SHULTIS
In today’s episode of “local leaders and elected officials wanting to give away your tax dollars,” we tune into Memphis. The plot line? Just the usual—giving your money to Hollywood will convince them to film something here and it will create millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs. The problem? That storyline is as stale as Transformers. It was good the first time around, but now we’re left wondering why we’re bothering to spend money to see the same scenes and explosions for the millionth time.
NBC recently announced they would turn recently-filmed pilot for Bluff City Law into a full season, and Memphis leaders are currently clamoring for $10 million in state dollars to give to the network, hoping to convince them to film the show in Memphis. The spokesman for the Memphis and Shelby Film Commission Film Commission in an interview with NBC 5 in Memphis stated that Memphis is losing money and jobs because of Tennessee’s hesitance to heavily incentivize production here compared to Georgia and other states. Others interviewed stated that Tennessee was relatively late to the film incentives game and gives pennies compared to other states.
The reason Tennessee should continue to give little—or, even better, outright eliminate these programs—is because film incentives have been shown to be a terrible value. State film incentives became popular in the mid and late 2000s. By 2009, 44 states offered some kind of film incentive. What those in the industry won’t tell you is that since then, thirteen states have completely eliminated their programs and several more have reduced theirs because these programs have been shown to be a bad value for taxpayers. In fact, a recent study by Tennessee’s Dept. of Economic and Community Development (ECD) found that the $69.1 million given over the life of Tennessee’s program has resulted in $14.7 million in state tax collections, or a 21-cent return on the dollar. This estimate is on the higher side compared to most states, with some official state studies stating as little as seven cents on the dollar.
What’s worse is even if a show does agree to come and film in a certain location after receiving incentives, it’s no guarantee the show will stay. As we’ve seen repeatedly, networks will hold taxpayers hostage demanding more and more incentives for future seasons. Even with the show Nashville, despite being named after a specific city, ABC threatened to leave and film in Austin, Texas if it did not receive more money for its third season after receiving $16 million in state dollars for the first two seasons. Not to mention the fact that after the show was picked up for multiple seasons, the amount of the show’s budget spent in Tennessee dropped from 89 percent to no more than 55 percent for any of the following seasons. Basically, after the show “hit it big,” ABC took the money and used it to help pay for out of state work in Hollywood.
Speaking of 89 percent, NBC 5 interviewed a film union representative who believed that Bluff City Law could be for Memphis what “Nashville” was for the Music City stating, “it brought hundreds of millions into the economy” and “more than paid for itself in tax revenue.” The problem is these numbers are based off of a visitor’s survey from 2014, which ECD used to calculate tourism impact. ECD assumed that the show had a similar impact in all six seasons. The truth is post 2014, the show was cancelled twice due to low ratings and viewership fell a whopping 89 percent by the final two seasons.
A Memphis state representative said it would be “embarrassing” for a show about Memphis to be filmed in Mississippi or someplace else. Why? If anything, it’s brilliant. Mississippi taxpayers will pay for the filming and if there is an increase in tourism, those visitors will spend their money visiting Memphis, and Tennesseans won’t have to spend an extra dime on a program that has been shown to overpromise and under deliver.
Do film incentives benefit Hollywood and the motion picture industry? Of course they do. What industry wouldn’t benefit from free money from taxpayers? But that doesn’t mean it’s a good buy for anybody else or the role for government to roll out the red carpet for one industry just because of its “Hollywood” glamour. Tennessee should learn from the wisdom of other states and keep its money and call the bluff on the benefits of film incentives.