Is Tourism a Side Benefit of Movie, TV Tax Incentives?

Film Production Incentives Boost Tourism
Tim McDonagh for Variety

West Monroe, La., may not be drawing the jet set, but it’s easy to see what visitors to the small town are looking for: “Duck Dynasty.”

The reality show’s popularity was cited in a recent report, sponsored by the MPAA and state film boosters, which argued that valuable movie- and TV show-inspired tourism is an important side benefit of government film tax incentives.

Anecdotal evidence is one thing; quantifying it is another.

The study, prepared by HR&A Advisors, says that tourism spending connected to movies and TV shows supported 22,720 jobs and up to $766.6 million in personal income in the state. The figures were calculated based on the results of an online survey of 1,381 recent visitors to Louisiana, showing that 14.5% of tourists said they were “induced” to visit by movies and TV shows filmed there.

Those results were almost immediately challenged by the public interest group Louisiana Budget Project, which called the report deeply flawed and said that “a typical viewer of a typical Louisiana-based production doesn’t even know they’re watching a Louisiana movie.”

The numbers are likely to be the source of continued debate as states weigh renewing or expanding their tax incentive programs.

“That is the big question,” says Stefan Roesch, film tourism consultant and author of the book “The Experiences of Film Location Tourists.” “I think it is pretty difficult, from a market-research point of view, to define who a ‘film-induced’ tourist actually is.”

Some tourists may want to just visit a location, he says, while others may want more than that. When Roesch went to Tunisia to see locations where George Lucas shot Luke Skywalker’s home planet for “Star Wars,” some of those traveling with him played the movie’s theme. One wore a Jedi robe and told him, “I was living that moment. I was Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Generally, though, it’s not easy to determine the exact impulses responsible for vacation objectives, Roesch says. “How do you quantify the influence of a film (on) travel to a wider destination? What do you say (it’s worth)? 50%? 30%?”

It’s even difficult to extrapolate the effect of perhaps the most popular movie-inspired travel site — what Roesch calls the “mother lode” of film-driven tourism: New Zealand, the target of those ostensibly attracted by “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

The nation’s international-arrivals figures did experience an increase after the first picture was released, but Roesch notes that those numbers had been rising before that.

That isn’t to say location filming has little or no impact on tourism. The MPAA’s Vans Stevenson cites Southern California as a prime example. No one questions the fact that Hollywood is one of the world’s major tourist destinations.

Unfortunately for the MPAA, a report released last month by Louisiana state economic development officials didn’t account for any of the economic benefit from tourism, instead concentrating on the return that productions bring back to state tax coffers only. The conclusion was far less rosy: Just 23¢ from each dollar of tax credit comes back in the form of state taxes.

And yet, someone is making some money from “Duck Dynasty”-inspired visitors. Otherwise there probably wouldn’t be the Duck Commander Hometown Tour.