Missing out on ‘Lincoln’ film costly to D.C.

Abraham Lincoln took on bloodshed among the states and the shame of slavery during his four years in the White House, thwarting plans of the Confederacy headquartered 90 miles to the south in Richmond.

So D.C. officials were disappointed to see Virginia cash in on the 16th president through a new film that will almost certainly contend for statuettes on Oscar night. The District has been home to the federal government for more than 200 years, but it is the Old Dominion’s tourism website that urges visitors to “walk in the footsteps of the cast and crew of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, ‘Lincoln,’ filmed over 53 days in Virginia.”

The loss of “Lincoln” to their neighbors across the Potomac River is nothing new for D.C. officials. But they are tired of seeing filmmakers stop by the District to film exterior shots of the city’s iconic monuments, only to capture their plot lines far from the nation’s capital.

Besides pride in one’s milieu, millions of dollars are at stake in the hotly contested arena of film production and state-based incentives to corral television shows and box-office hits. Virginia, for example, lured Mr. Spielberg to film “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis, within its borders in exchange for $4.5 million in incentives.

“They see a niche, and they are taking advantage of the niche,” D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, said of the states on Monday. “And I think it’s time for us to the do the same thing.”

The city lawmaker held a hearing Monday on a bill he introduced last month that would redirect 1 percent of city grants to contractors to both the city’s film-incentive fund and a pool of money that funds public art projects.

Producers want to hear about the dollars and cents — and that’s where the District falls short. Mr. Orange said virtually nothing is in the city’s film-incentive fund — about $15,000 last time he checked — while Maryland or far-flung Canadian cities continue to grab projects with names like “Veep” and “White House Down.”

Officials in 37 states use film tax credits to build up their local arts industry and draw tourism even as they cut their budgets and cope with decelerating revenue, according to a report this year from professional services group Ernst & Young. By offering incentives, governments hope to recoup their investment multifold as production crews spend their dollars locally, hire local workers and raise the profile of the city or state where they film.

The District’s neighbors have been successful in attracting new productions and the accompanying financial benefits. Earlier this month, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said the television and film industry brought nearly $400 million to the state last year, a 14.5 percent increase over the previous year, because producers took advantage of grant funds and tax credits. In Maryland, lawmakers this year flirted with legislation that would triple the state’s tax credit for film production from its current level of $7.5 million per year.

“They’ve been very aggressive, I would say indirectly, because they continue to put money on the table, and we don’t have anything on the table,” Mr. Orange said. “So they continue to walk away with the projects.”

Mr. Orange and the District’s motion-picture agency are trying to overcome a number of hurdles that make producers leery of filming in the city. The city needs a one-stop shop for filming permits, instead of sending producers to various sectors of the local and federal government, and it has to persuade filmmakers that the District is home to skilled workers with movie-set experience, Mr. Orange said.

In its fiscal 2013 budget, the D.C. government dedicated $100,000 to a feasibility study that will explore the merits of building a movie studio within the city.

Yet film incentives are not immune from criticism. A move to expand Virginia’s film incentives fund by $2 million earlier this year prompted a Democratic opponent of the measure to wave an “E.T.” doll on the House floor, and the report from Ernst & Young warned that a “short-run budget perspective may conflict with the longer-run economic development objectives for film-credit programs.”

A trio of witnesses from the real estate industry urged Mr. Orange, chairman of the Committee on Small and Local Business Development, to reconsider the funding mechanism that shaves off 1 percent from city grants to contractors to pay for art projects and the film-incentive fund. They said it was hard enough to close deals in the current economic climate and to meet specific requirements, such as the construction of affordable housing, that come with public-private partnerships.

The District is supposed to pay for public art projects out of the annual capital budget, and lawmakers have declined to make the film-incentive fund a priority in their annual spending plans, according to Ernie Jarvis, president of the D.C. Building Industry Association.

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