I have previously written about California’s film tax credit system and interstate competition, here and here. The California Legislative Analyst Office has recently published a report concerning the impact of California’s film tax credit. While noting that the film tax credit likely prevented some jobs and production from leaving the state, it asserts that around 30% of projects receiving the credit may have occurred without the credit. How does the report reach that conclusion:
Some of the motion picture projects under the first film tax credit program probably would have filmed in California even if they had not received a tax credit. We explain below how we were able to estimate these windfall benefits arising from the first film tax credit.
Tax Credit Lottery Allows for Natural Experiment. It is impossible to identify with certainty which projects would have been made in California, which elsewhere, and which not at all, had they not received a film tax credit. Because of the way the first film tax credit was administered, however, we are able to roughly estimate the probability that any given film or television project might have been made in California without a tax credit. Beginning in 2011, the program was over-subscribed on the first day applications were accepted—with the demand for film tax credits far outstripping the available amount—and tax credits were mostly allocated to projects through a random process. This allowed for an imperfect natural experiment, as some projects were allocated a credit and other similarly situated projects were not. The California Film Commission (CFC) collected some information about projects that applied for and did not receive a tax credit from the program—whether they were made and, if so, where. (As noted elsewhere in this report, many projects were never allocated a tax credit because there was an insufficient amount of tax credits available. In other cases, some applicants received an allocation but withdrew from the program for various reasons—some of these were made eventually, but without a tax credit from California. When that happened, those tax credits became available for other projects that had been placed onto a waitlist. However, many of these began filming—in California or elsewhere—prior to being offered an allocation.) We supplemented this CFC data with publicly available data sources, such as information from the Internet Movie Database and Variety. Looking just at the film tax credit applicants in 2011, 2012, and 2013—the three years for which we have the best data—we see that 199 projects applied for and did not receive a film tax credit but were eventually made. Of these, as we show in the figure, one-third—66 projects—filmed in California without receiving a tax credit. Dozens of other project applicants that did not receive a film tax credit from California were filmed in British Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, and elsewhere.
The report notes that public subsidies such as the tax credit should be avoided [but are understandable given interstate competition]. However, it also notes that the economic impact is relatively substantial—although difficult to measure well:
It is important that we emphasize that it is impossible to precisely measure the net change in an economy caused by a tax credit or any other policy change because many other economic changes are occurring simultaneously. It is not possible to know what the economy would have done had the policy not been adopted in the first place. We note that there is some uncertainty in the underlying data we use in this evaluation and, as we discussed in the nearby box, limitations to the methods that are used to estimate indirect and induced economic effects. Finally, any assessment of the full economic value of the opportunity costs is inherently subjective, as we cannot know how foregone revenue might have otherwise been used.
Overall, we think that the first film tax credit program probably increased the economic output of California by between $6 billion and $10 billion on net. This is a total amount over a period of more than a decade. The annual increase in likely economic activity—typically under $1 billion per year—boosts California’s economic output by no more than a few hundredths of a percentage point.
[Hat Tip to Professor Paul Caron’s Tax Prof Blog.]
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