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Expiring tax credit sets off a scramble in Hollywood

It's just one of many incentives for wealthy investors to put their money in film. States and the U.S. combined provide about $1.5 billion in tax breaks.

December 30, 2013|By Evan Halper
  • Chicago attorney Hal "Corky" Kessler is trying to lock in an expiring federal tax credit for clients on 62 different projects.
Chicago attorney Hal "Corky" Kessler is trying to lock in an… (David Klobucar / Chicago…)

WASHINGTON — Jennifer Tadlock doesn't yet have all the talent lined up for the small-budget dramatic action feature she hopes to film next year, let alone a full crew. But she does have a tax break, and it's expiring, which was enough to get her behind the camera last month.

Tadlock spent about $500 to hire a skeletal crew and nonunion talent to film just one scene near her home in Fresno. "We did the makeup ourselves," she said.

The scene, involving teenagers plotting to harass an elderly woman, may never appear in the final cut. But by shooting this year, Tadlock hopes to lock in place the tax break that was key for investors who put up the $6 million she'll need to shoot "Shades of Grace" for real next year.

"This is the biggest budget I have been able to secure, and that tax credit is why," she said. "The risk of film these days is so high. There is no guarantee whatsoever your film will make back any money.… This guarantees investors they can write it off on their taxes. If it makes back money, that is just a bonus for them."

The number and value of tax breaks for the film industry has soared in the last decade. States and the federal government together provide about $1.5 billion in tax benefits, according to estimates by the Tax Foundation and the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.

As a result, Hollywood films, often seen as a risky place to invest money, can be anything but chancy for wealthy investors who have learned that some of those tax breaks can be packaged to generate cash from even mediocre box office results.

This month's scheduled expiration of just one of those breaks — a federal credit for production costs that the Treasury says will cost about $430 million over 2013 and 2014 — has set off a scramble. Some financial planners who package the deals have pushed producers like Tadlock to start shooting in hopes of keeping their projects eligible for the write-off even after it passes from the scene.

One attorney says he is trying to lock it in for his clients on 62 different projects.

Experts have argued for years about whether the generosity that cities, states and the federal government have shown Hollywood actually helps the wider economy. But there's little argument that some tax incentives and subsidies have been a boon to a cottage industry of financial planners who have found ways to package them into windfalls for clients.

It helps if the movie is a hit. But that is not necessary.

"These things have become extremely lucrative," said Carl Davis, senior analyst at the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy, a Washington-based group that often critiques what its analysts see as loopholes in the tax code. "You are not going to find a lot of industries that have this kind of credit."

Lawyers and financial planners who package such deals tout how profitable they can be.

"There is this impression created by those who don't want people to get in an uproar about the subsidies and incentives that Hollywood is a dangerous and expensive place to be, and only dumb dentists from Miami invest in film," said Troy Dyer, chief executive of Geneva Media Holdings, which arranges film financing deals for individuals with lots of income to shield. "That is not the case.

"The wisest of investors out there always make money in Hollywood, even on the crappiest of films," he said.

Financiers often layer tax incentives with other maneuvers that allow for yet more breaks. Dyer's firm markets a strategy that uses an unconventional payroll structure to exploit deductions allowed on crew insurance costs. He says it enables investors to double or triple the value of the credits a project receives.

The longtime financial planner and USC film school graduate says he helps the super-rich navigate these "loopholes" because "I believe in the arts."

"We don't have a Medici family anymore," Dyer said. "Where would we be without this funding? We are seeing the most important art that has been made in 50 or 60 years."

Critics of the deals say they border on abusive.

"When you are getting all or nearly all your money back up front, that is not economic development," said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a liberal advocacy group in Washington. "When you create something that is this generous, you attract the gamers rather than the doers."

The deals tend to involve independent film projects because many of the credits cap the amounts of money that can be used. The federal tax credit maxes out at $15 million per film, for example, which is much smaller than a typical blockbuster budget.

The details of the deals can often be mind-numbingly complex, but most follow the same general outline: The federal tax credit can be used to offset so-called passive income — money generated from such things as investments in real estate or limited liability corporations — which most taxpayers don't have, but many wealthy people do.

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