- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2007

NEWARK, N.J.

Canada easily could have stood in for New Jersey in the new movie “Gracie.”

It doesn’t matter that the film is about a New Jersey girl who wants to play soccer on a boys’ team or that part of the story line involves a trip to the famous Jersey shore.

For the right price, Canada can become Jersey — or any other location, for that matter — thanks to the magic of Hollywood. However, New Jersey offered millions in incentives for the film company to shoot in the Garden State.

The “Gracie” courtship illustrates the fierce competition among states and countries for a piece of the lucrative film and television production business. When a major studio shoots a big-budget film on location, that can mean $225,000 per day to the local economy, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Even a brief shoot creates local jobs and generates waves of positive publicity.

“It isn’t surprising that states are doing everything they can to attract film production to their areas because of the impact they can have on the local economy,” says Seth Oster, a spokesman for the group. “The movie industry wants to keep production here in this country whenever possible.”

Incentives range from breaks on hotel room taxes to cash back in a few states. Often the biggest carrots states can offer production companies are breaks from state taxes, usually income or corporate business taxes.

For production companies or networks that have permanent facilities in a state, the tax credits can offset their own tax liabilities. Film companies working in the state for a single production can sell their tax credits to companies based in that state.

To land “Gracie,” New Jersey forked over a tax credit of more than $1 million and a $1.5 million loan guarantee on a $4.5 million loan — in addition to a $500,000 loan that doesn’t have to be paid back until November 2008.

The independent film’s budget was just $9.5 million. Andrew Shue, the former “Melrose Place” heartthrob and lead producer for “Gracie,” says the producers used the tax credit money to shoot two extra days and pay for music rights for the soundtrack, including a Bruce Springsteen song.

“The economics of moviemaking are getting tougher and tougher,” says Mr. Shue, whose sister, Elisabeth, co-produced and stars in the film. “The tax credit is a big deal. In our instance, it may have made all the difference.”

The competition for film and TV is so heated that some states have gone back to their legislatures a second or third time to sweeten their financial incentive packages, which have become every bit as important as a state’s physical environment.

“In the past, [production companies] would call and say, ‘Do you have 1940s general store, a 1930s lighthouse, an ultramodern office building, a Victorian train station?’ ” says Steven Gorelick, associate director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission. “Now the location takes a back seat to the economics.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than three dozen states have some form of incentive for the film or TV industry or are looking to pass them.

One new player is Connecticut, which last year began its 30 percent tax credit program for productions that spend at least $50,000.

Louisiana, which has seen $2 billion in production activity in the past five years, increased its tax credit from 15 percent to 25 percent and offered other incentives, says Chris Stelly, executive director of the state’s film commission.

“Other states have had incentive programs, but nothing like we’re seeing now,” he says.

Last year, New Mexico increased its package to a 25 percent rebate on state taxes. The state legislature has approved three tweaks to the original 2002 law, says Jennifer Schwalenberg, deputy director of the state’s film office.

“Everyone’s upping the ante every year, so we have to stay ahead of the pack,” she says.

Recent shoots include a remake of “3:10 to Yuma” with Russell Crowe, “In the Valley of Elah” with Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, and “Sunshine Cleaning” with Alan Arkin.

Not to be outdone, New Jersey — where Thomas Edison invented the first motion picture camera and projector and created the first studio — wants to increase its annual pot of tax credits from $10 million to $30 million.

The Garden State’s year-old program offers a 20 percent tax credit, more than its high-profile neighbor, New York, which offers 15 percent.

Producers seeking the New Jersey credit must spend 60 percent of all expenses in the state, less postproduction costs.

That requirement disqualified New Jersey’s highest-profile show, “The Sopranos.” It receives incentives from New York, where much of the mob drama is shot on a soundstage in Queens, along with location scenes around New Jersey, an HBO spokeswoman says.

Still, in its first year offering incentives, New Jersey attracted three feature films with big stars.

“Be Kind Rewind,” stars Jack Black and has been approved by the state for $2 million in credits; Newark native Queen Latifah’s “Perfect Christmas” opens in December and received $1.2 million in tax credits. Another production for which she is a producer, a television pilot called “Wifeys,” has been approved for nearly $300,000.

“If it gets picked up, the tax credit will make New Jersey competitive as a place to shoot the series,” says Mike Elliott, an executive producer of the show and a producer for “Perfect Christmas.”

The first film to use the credits and appear in theaters is “Gracie,” a feel-good soccer tale that opened June 1.

Mr. Gorelick concedes that the state didn’t see an increase in productions in the first year of the program. However, he says it was important in keeping “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” a television series set in New York City that has been approved for almost half of the credits for the year, nearly $4.5 million.

“A TV show is worth millions and millions and millions every year on an ongoing basis, like an annuity,” he says.

Brian O’Leary, senior vice president for tax counsel of NBC Universal, which produces “SVU,” said in an e-mail the studio would not be filming the series in New Jersey if the incentives had not been passed.

Not everyone is happy, though. State Assemblyman Joe Pennacchio shudders at the idea of increasing New Jersey’s incentive pot to $30 million in a state with the nation’s highest property taxes and a huge budget deficit.

“Is this a good use of money? They think it’s sexy,” he says, “but the taxpayers are getting whacked.”

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