New York to triple film, TV tax credit

State hopes to halt Connecticut's siphoning

New York state is about to triple its tax credit for film and TV productions shooting within its borders in a bid to regain an edge over its credit-happy neighbors Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

The state legislature late Wednesday approved a budget that includes a major revision of the existing tax incentive program. The revision extends the program by two years to 2013 and takes the total credit to 30% of all below-the-line costs from 10%.

New York City also offers a 5% credit, so city shoots can reap a total of 35%. Under the revision, the credit will also be granted in one lump sum, rather than the current method of spreading it across two years of tax returns. The single payment is viewed as a boon to investors or producers.

The state’s $121.7 billion budget needs only the signature of new Gov. David A. Paterson, who succeeded the disgraced Eliot Spitzer less than a month ago. It is almost a certainty that Paterson will put pen to paper within a few days.

Pat Swinney Kaufman, exec director of the Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and TV Development, has worked with her staff and other allies for more than a year to up the ante.

“We began to monitor the activities of our neighboring states and crunching the numbers a year ago, building a business case,” she said. “This action by the legislators puts wind in the sails of the whole state.”

Connecticut in particular has siphoned away film and TV activity by offering 30% of costs both above and below the line. The savings were enough to lure productions such as “Righteous Kill,” introducing the bizarre spectacle of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino – living symbols of the New York film biz – commuting up to Norwalk or Bridgeport.

Entire companies were also enticed. Fox animation supplier Blue Sky Studios plans to move a few miles to Connecticut from its White Plains home in order to take advantage of post-production credits.

While the facts seem persuasive, activists for the revision encountered some headwinds. Stuart Suna, president of Silvercup Studios, made numerous trips up to Albany.

“There was lots of support but also lots of debate about it,” he said. “Lawmakers were looking to cut $800 million out of the budget. They look at tax credits as an expense. So we had to expend a lot of effort to explain how they actually help bring revenue to the state.”

The mayor’s film and TV office has stayed mostly on the sidelines, at least publicly, given that the city’s 5% credit was always on track to stay in place. But the office did chime in Thursday as the revision started to appear like a reality.

“As the only city in the country to offer a film tax credit, we have become even more attractive as a location and have enhanced our business incentives through a marketing credit and production discounts at nearly 800 local vendors,” said Commissioner Katherine Oliver.

Michelle Byrd, head of the Independent Feature Project, noted research that 65% to 70% of indie productions had tapped the credits since they were introduced in 2004.

“It’s an especially useful device for New York City as location,” she said. “And it does wind up having a ripple effect on production services companies and other businesses. If you’re shooting on the streets of New York, it’s hard to replicate that.”

Christine Vachon, one Gotham figure who has frequently shot movies on the city’s streets over the past two decades, agreed with the sentiment and hailed the legislative win. She happily returned home to shoot two projects after doing “Savage Grace” mostly in Spain and “I’m Not There” mostly in Montreal.

But she mordantly noted the “hilarious” trend of European crews being drawn to New York by the weak dollar. “Because the dollar is so pathetic, I’ve heard about a lot of companies coming to New York to shoot,” she said.

(Winter Miller contributed to this report.)

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