Pittsburgh lawmaker pitches bill to raise state's film tax credit cap to $100M

| Thursday, May 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Shadyside resident and actress Delilah Picart spent 18 days filming scenes in Pittsburgh as a sniper shooting victim in “Jack Reacher” in late 2011 and got paid $18,000.

“I made more money on this job than at the temp job I had in Pittsburgh working for four months in 2011,” said Picart, 32, who played in the movie starring Tom Cruise.

She credits the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credits program for her earnings. Supporters say it attracts filmmaking projects to Pennsylvania that otherwise would film elsewhere.

Pennsylvania caps annual tax credits at $60 million a year, but the amount often gets exhausted within about three months. Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, introduced a bill to raise the annual cap to $100 million.

Competition is hot between states to lure films. Pennsylvania is one of 42 states that offers incentives to the industry, and seven of them have no annual caps on their tax credits.

One of those seven, Georgia, for example, beat Pennsylvania in late March to lure a $90 million film studio that promised to make 1,000 local jobs.

Fontana's bill has wide — but not universal — support in Harrisburg. It comes as Pennsylvania legislators in tight times try to pass a budget by June 30.

“It doesn't benefit every county in the state. But I represent Pittsburgh, and there's certainly a positive (economic) effect here when there's a film being made in town,” said Fontana.

The program provides a 25 percent tax credit to film and television producers who spend at least 60 percent of their budgets within the state. They are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Spending must be audited and reports sent to the state to receive the credit, generally 18 months after filming is done.

Critics say the tax credits are a giveaway to one industry at the expense of others.

“If Pennsylvania is looking to make an investment, it would do better to invest in manufacturing and technology,” said Antony Davies, an economics professor at Duquesne University and a skeptic about the long-term economic benefits of subsidizing the film industry.

Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin County, agrees that the money could be better spent.

“I do have concerns about investing in temporary projects and whether the jobs created are also temporary,” he said.

Before the tax credit program started in 2007, Pennsylvania's film industry employed about 250 people. Now about 18,000 people work in film, says the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

“That's why we need the incentive — to support the industry,” said Casey LaRocco, a board representative for IATSE Local 489 and a medic on film sets.

Gov. Tom Corbett supports the credit because it has created jobs, said administration spokesman Steve Kratz. But the issue turns on “where the commonwealth is fiscally,” he added.

Aside from actors and actresses such as Picart, movie-making employs hundreds of extras, crew members, casting agents, equipment managers, drivers, caterers and the like for about four months, says the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).

For example, “The Dark Knight Rises,” the Batman movie filmed here in 2011, employed more than 10,000 extras for a crowd scene in Heinz Field. Extras get $7.25 an hour.

“That's people who get paychecks and spend that money in Pittsburgh,” said Chelsea Danley, spokeswoman for the Ohio-Pittsburgh local of SAG-AFTRA. “Film people stay at our hotels and eat at our restaurants. Crews buy their wood and other materials in our stores.”

Since 2007, the state tax credit has drawn more than 220 film and TV productions to Pennsylvania that spent $1.4 billion, says the Pittsburgh Film Office.

“In Pittsburgh, filmmaking spending has topped $100 million every calendar year for the last four years,” said Dawn Keezer, film office director.

“Jack Reacher,” for instance, spent almost $3 million on transportation alone in Western Pennsylvania, said Kevin McQuillan, a local certified public accountant who has audited 60 films made in Pennsylvania.

Hotels benefit, too. Sheraton Station Square has hosted filmmaking visitors on at least one movie a year since 2007.

“People stay with us about three months,” said Andrew Sliben, sales and marketing director.

Thomas Olson is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or tolson@tribweb.com.

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