Make-believe can be fun. You need more than special effects and a studio full of imagination, however, to believe it could be economic development.
About 20 years ago, I stepped from the parking garage near what, at that time, was the newspaper’s main office and wondered if I had slid through a wormhole. The entire street looked like something from a busy part of Hong Kong. A collection of tightly situated shops lined the street. Chinese lettering abounded. Clusters of people stood at various points, dressed in ways not normally seen in Utah.
The only giveaway was the large truck, a moving van full of motion-picture supplies being carted about by people dressed comfortably as late-20th century Americans.
"Touched by an Angel" touched our part of downtown that day. Back then, people who lived or worked in and around Salt Lake City became used to their lives intertwining with the make-believe world of the weekly CBS drama, just as they also became familiar with the cast and crew of Everwood, a drama on the WB network.
Still, despite all the fun, I don’t remember many of my out-of-state friends booking flights here because of it. Mostly, they had no idea the Chinese street on their TV was a half block from a Carl’s Jr. on State Street, and two blocks from iconic Temple Square.
So when I read on KSL.com this week that Utah is having trouble competing with other states for film productions because those states are giving away tons of taxpayer money, I have trouble understanding what all the fuss is about.
If the big and small screens are mostly about make-believe, don’t they often make believe they were filmed somewhere else? Not many people stick around to studiously read credits for film locations. I’m guessing even fewer plan vacations around them. I’m also guessing film crews don’t leave much money behind when they leave.
Actually, it’s more than a guess. Some honest-to-goodness studies have shown this is true. One, by the Tax Foundation four years ago, concluded, “Based on fanciful estimates of economic activity and tax revenue, states are investing in movie production projects with small returns and taking unnecessary risks with taxpayer dollars. In return, they attract mostly temporary jobs that are often transplanted from other states.”
Another, done in 2010 by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, concluded two of the most ambitious, budding-Hollywood states at that time, Louisiana and New Mexico, would be better off using the money they throw at movie stars for “education, health care, public safety and infrastructure.”
Just in case the reader didn’t get it, the study said, “State film subsidies are a wasteful, ineffective, and unfair instrument of economic development.”
Even the L.A. Times recently wrote about the ineffectiveness of California’s attempts to up the ante, luring films to stay where they belong. The story cited a Louisiana Department of Economic Development study that showed every job created by a movie tax credit there came at a net loss to the state of more than $12,000.
The good news? As states flock to the cameras like star-struck autograph-seekers, Utah remains one of the saner competitors. Here, you still have to prove you added something before you get a tax credit. You must show receipts proving you have spent at least $200,000 in Utah, and used a significant portion of cast and crew from Utah, before you get any money.
That seems like a mature approach from a state that doesn’t need to act like it’s never taken a screen test. Hollywood was making westerns here before anyone knew how to spell subsidy.
Rob Reiner is reported to be heading here to begin shooting a film called, “Being Charlie.” That’s good news.
Every once in a while, a production even gains an almost cult following that actually attracts tourists. When "High School Musical" was filmed in Salt Lake City, it started a pilgrimage of sorts to East High School. Preston, Idaho, made a few bucks off "Napoleon Dynamite." People still flock to the baseball field on an Iowa farm where "Field of Dreams" was shot.
It’s fun, yes, but not exactly the definition of economic development.