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Chris Dodd, Beau Willimon Push for Use of New York Tax Credits to Boost Diversity

Motion Picture Association of America chief Chris Dodd stumped for the New York film and television production incentive, arguing in a speech on Wednesday that business is booming in the Empire State because of the tax breaks.

“At a time when technology is consuming jobs this industry is growing a labor force,” the former U.S. senator said during remarks at a summit on the entertainment business hosted by Crain’s New York.

Dodd’s comments came as the tax incentive is currently scheduled to sunset in 2019. If the state does not extend the credits, the MPAA chief warned, Hollywood may go elsewhere, bringing films and shows to Georgia or Toronto, where costs are lower and breaks are more expansive. By making sure the state “doesn’t change the rules in the middle of the game,” producers will be incentivized to stay and bring their projects to New York, Dodd said.

To press his point, Dodd touted the amount of money that film and television productions have injected into the local economy as a result of being lured to the state. Since the credits were created in 2004, the film business has generated $14 billion in revenue and created 900,000 jobs in New York, he said.

Dodd’s support of the incentives is more or less a given. He’s the film industry’s top lobbyist and tax incentives have become an integral part of any film or show’s budget. But he wasn’t alone in evangelizing on their behalf. His comments were echoed by a panel of soundstage owners, showrunners such as “House of Cards'” Beau Willimon and “Nurse Jackie’s” Clyde Phillips, and New York City Film Commissioner Julie Menin. They stressed that production is on the rise because of the breaks, and that demand is actually exceeding space. There aren’t enough production facilities in the city to keep up with all of the shows and movies that are coming to the Big Apple.

In addition to pushing to keep the credit, Willimon is hoping to use the incentives to increase diversity in the entertainment business. That’s an issue that has been hotly debated following the lack of nominees of color in any of the major Oscar categories for two years in a row. Studies also show that fewer women are employed behind the camera than men — only 9% of the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2015 had female directors. To correct that imbalance, Willimon and Writers Guild of America East is asking the state to carve out $5 million of the tax credit for productions that hire female or minority writers or directors.

“Sometimes you need the encouragement of the bottom line to modify behavior,” said Willimon. “Let’s incentivize hiring practices.”

Not everyone on the panel was a fan. Alan Suna, CEO of Silvercup Studios, said he thought the amendment was flawed and that the incentive could be taken up by one or two highly compensated female showrunners such as “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” Tina Fey or “Girls'” Jenni Konner, instead of supporting middle-class workers. Suna said he supported greater diversity, but thought the tax credits were “a dangerous path” that could discourage studios from going to the state.

A testy Willimon shot back that the incentives would be capped, so one individual’s salary wouldn’t eat up all of the credits.

“This is a hyperbolic, doomsday attempt to say this thing, which could actually make a difference, is going to rock the boat,” he said.

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