Pittsburgh Film Office laments flat budget from state taxes

Aaron Aupperlee
| Friday, July 5, 2013, 11:33 p.m.

When brainstorming a modern-day version of the fabled feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, screenwriters set the show in Pittsburgh.

But when NBC ordered a pilot, the studio filmed in Boston. That's where it got a tax break after Pennsylvania's ran out.

Experts said the state budget passed this week will hinder the industry's ability to expand here, even though $60 million in 2013-14 film tax credits — the same as the past three years — will continue to attract movies and TV crews.

“This is just going to cut us off,” Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, said Friday. “By not increasing the film tax (credit), we've limited the amount of work in (Pennsylvania). We've limited the amount of jobs, and we've limited the ability to grow the film industry in Pennsylvania.”

Despite talk in Harrisburg of increasing the cap on the tax credits, or removing it altogether, Gov. Tom Corbett signed a budget this week keeping the credits at $60 million. Lawmakers kept growth small, increasing the state's budget by 2.3 percent.

Antony Davies, an economics professor at Duquesne University, said the tax credit costs the state money. The state recoups 14 cents in tax revenue for every dollar awarded in tax credits, according to a study the state's Independent Fiscal Office released recently.

Davies wants the state to abandon the film tax credit altogether and called flat-lining the program the second-best thing lawmakers could do.

The decision “kicks the can down the road,” Davies said, giving lawmakers more time to decide the program's fate.

The state awarded all its tax credits in eight weeks last year, leaving many Pennsylvanians who work in the industry unemployed toward the end of the fiscal year, Keezer said. Many will be back on the job soon as the new fiscal year begins, but Keezer cautioned that the money will run out quickly again.

The tax credit has brought high-profile films to Pennsylvania. Tom Cruise's “Jack Reacher,” filmed in Western Pennsylvania between October 2011 and January 2012, received the credit. The latest Batman installment, “The Dark Knight Rises,” filmed in Pittsburgh but did not receive the tax credit.

The “Hatfields and McCoys” TV series, which NBC ultimately declined to pick up, chose Boston over Pittsburgh because Pennsylvania's film tax credit money was exhausted, Keezer said. She said the state lost 25 projects last year because tax credits ran dry, adding 11 of those would have filmed in Western Pennsylvania.

For the past four years, the film tax credit has brought $100 million in business each year to Western Pennsylvania, Keezer said, citing the state study. Since implementing the tax credit in 2004, the state added nearly 1,500 film-related jobs, some of which are temporary, according to the study. Keezer said spin-off jobs with caters, florists and hotels push the number higher.

The TV and film industry likely will not shun Pennsylvania because of the decision to hold the line on the tax credit, said Vans Stevenson, senior vice president of state government affairs for the Motion Picture Association of America. The industry looks for stability and predictability, he said.

“Because the money's there, the program hasn't changed. I don't think anyone is going to look at (Pennsylvania) differently now than they did a year ago.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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