In an era where many states are seeing filmmaker incentives fade to black, South Carolina’s movie industry is making the case for additional taxpayer funds to bring more Hollywood-style productions to the Palmetto State.
“More money, that’s the key,” Michael Thompson, a lobbyist for the Carolina Film Alliance, told the group during a recent meeting in North Charleston to discuss ways to grow the industry.
The S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism funds its Film Commission with about $17 million annually, most of it going toward industry incentives. It’s enough money to lure a pair of television series and a feature film — like the “Mr. Mercedes” cable show and the “Halloween” movie remake, both filmed in the Charleston area — each year.
“It needs to be more than that.” Thompson said.
There’s plenty of opportunity for growth, with the commission repeatedly turning down productions when the incentive money runs out. For example, the Hallmark Channel’s “The Beach House,” set in coastal South Carolina, was filmed in Savannah because the commission’s budget had run dry. “Christmas in Conway,” set in the small Horry County town, also was produced out of state.
“I think we’re competitive now,” Duane Parrish, director of the state tourism department, said of South Carolina’s ability to lure filmmakers. “It’s when we don’t have enough money or we run out of money and have to turn down a production — that’s when there’s lost business.”
How much that business is worth is up for debate.
PRT awarded nearly $58 million in tax rebates to filmmakers between 2013 and 2017. The rebates range from 20 percent on wages paid to out-of-state residents working on TV or movie productions to 30 percent on supplies purchased in South Carolina.
Parrish said the rebates resulted in 2,138 days of television and movie production statewide, the rental of 114,230 hotel rooms and the hiring — mostly temporary — of 14,600 workers. All of which amounted to roughly $120 million in spending.
The ancillary benefits are fuzzier.
“There’s a tourism benefit that’s hard to track, but you know it’s there,” Parrish said.
Visitors, for example, want to see the house where “The Big Chill” was filmed or see sites in Charleston that were featured on the Lifetime television series “Army Wives.” A recent study shows up to 1.6 million households visited South Carolina based, at least in part, on shows they’ve watched or movies they’ve seen. That generated $1.7 billion over a 10-year period.
Parrish said a film’s reach is far greater these days than in the past, with streaming services like Netflix and Hulu both creating their own shows and bringing past productions to an exponentially larger audience.
Others, however, take a dimmer view of the benefits film incentives have for the general public — despite the cachet of spotting celebrities like Jamie Lee Curtis at a local coffee shop or bumping into Hillary Swank at Food Lion.
Michael Thom, a University of Southern California professor specializing in public finance, says film incentives have little to no impact on a state’s economy. Writing for The American Review of Public Administration, Thom said the incentives mostly benefit outside film production companies and current workers.
A College of Charleston analysis says South Carolina’s film incentives generate just 19 cents for every dollar spent. Other states say they’re losing money as well. Since 2009, 13 states have ended their film incentive programs and more are considering cutbacks.
But there are consequences for eliminating incentives, said Dan Rogers, project manager with South Carolina’s Film Commission.
“The first question we get is: What are your incentives,” he said. “If someone wants to get rid of something, it’s going to send shock waves through the industry. It’s a small industry, and they do talk.”
North Carolina learned that lesson after it ended tax credits for film productions in 2014, replacing a program that paid out $80.7 million that last year with a one-time, $10 million grant program, according to the Charlotte Observer. Filmmakers fled places like Wilmington for other states offering more money, and the Tar Heel State’s once-thriving movie and television industry dried up.
North Carolina has since revived its incentives program, but a report this year in The Winston-Salem Journal shows there have been few takers...