Long-term incentives ground TV series in Gotham

New York is boasting a record number of TV series lensing in state this year on the heels of the legislature’s five-year renewal of its film incentive tax program.

Albany’s long-term commitment to incentive coin provides the stability producers need to settle in the state even if the series doesn’t demand a Gotham-specific setting. The record number of 23 new and returning primetime series comes after much trial and error among biz boosters, who have learned to be savvy in lobbying for production incentives at the state capital.

Among the new primetime skeins setting up shop in Gotham are ABC’s “Pan Am”; CBS’ “A Gifted Man,” “Unforgettable” and “Person of Interest”; and NBC’s “Smash.”

“The tax credit program is in place with funding for five years, and that gives predictability to the major studios,” said Douglas C. Steiner, who runs the Brooklyn Navy Yard-based production facility Steiner Studios.

By contrast, California’s tax incentive program is in its third year with 27 projects receiving credits this year. The last credits are to be allocated by next July for a total of $500 million over five years. The State Assembly approved a bill in June for a five-year extension.

The Golden State’s program is significantly smaller and not as sweet as many others, with a maximum 25% credit for taxes on below the line expenditures. California officials contend that Hollywood’s existing infrastructure and the desire to stay close to home have the potential to reverse more than a decade of runaway production.

The climate for lensing in the Empire State has improved markedly in just a few years, compared with when the 2007 ESPN mini “The Bronx Is Burning,” about the 1997 N.Y. Yankees, was shot in Connecticut.

Since film and TV industryites began pushing the state to beef up its incentive program in 2007, the issue has often been a tug-of-war with lawmakers.

The program, anchored by a lucrative 30% credit on taxes for below-the-line expenditures incurred in the state, had been renewed on an annual basis, and usually went down to the wire as part of a larger budget battle. The five-year renewal passed last year makes it easier for Hollywood studios to do long-term budget forecasts incorporating the credits that are particularly important to ongoing TV series.

“Only recently have they come to the conclusion that it was such an amazing job creator that it deserved adequate funding,” said New York film commissioner Pat Swinney Kaufman.

Boosters of the tax credit program emphasize that film and TV production pumps some $5 billion into the local economy, supporting 4,000 local businesses and 100,000-plus jobs.

Kaufman, Steiner, and others had been agitating for years to raise the ceiling on tax credits per production to such a level that it wouldn’t come up for debate in the legislature every year. The Fox drama “Fringe” left Gotham for Toronto when the credit hit its financial cap in 2009 and lawmakers balked at raising the ceiling.

So how did they do it?

“We’ve gotten more sophisticated politically,” Steiner said. “We constantly have to be in front of legislators and their staffs, telling them how it’s helping and working, and we don’t just show up around budget time and vote time.”

Now that the program has some breathing room, Kaufman said she saw a fast rise in TV lensing activity during pilot season and that translated to more ongoing series this fall. “We broke records with our pilot season,” she said.

All this success has raised some questions, of course.

“There’s always been a fear of an arms race in the tax credits,” Steiner said. If one state offers bigger credits to steal biz from its neighbor, the worry becomes that the neighbor will respond, and the big losers will be the taxpayers.

But New York has several things that its neighbors don’t, including Broadway. “Part of the infrastructure here is from the theater — prop houses, wardrobe, dancers, actors,” Steiner said.

Everyone, even Mayor Bloomberg, is taking a victory lap.

“Our growth in our production and entertainment industries is one of the reasons we’re creating jobs at a faster clip than the rest of the nation,” he said Monday at Steiner Studios.

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