The movie industry injects about $100 million into Western Pennsylvania’s local economy every year with the help of the state’s film tax credit program, and there’s a push underway in Harrisburg to increase those funds earmarked for production crews.
Lawmakers are looking to boost the program by nearly doubling the amount of funds available to movies or television shows filmed in the state after most production ground to a halt for most of 2020 in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
In spearheading new legislation, state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll, hailed the success of the Film Production Tax Credit in helping more than 500 productions in the state since its inception in 2007, but added that the current allotment is inadequate since it’s currently capped at $70 million.
She recently introduced Senate Bill 321 to change the name of the program to Film Industry Incentive and increase the state assistance by nearly 80% to $125 million next fiscal year. The rate has fluctuated over the past decade during various budget negotiations, but Bartolotta said she has bipartisan support in the House and Senate for her bill to inject more money into the program.
That would be a welcome development for the local economy that could see a boost from increased productions, said Dawn Keezer, director of Pittsburgh Film Office. Keezer said she is “optimistic” for the bill’s passage even after several other lawmakers have pitched similar proposals in recent years. Bartolotta sits on the Pittsburgh Film Office’s board, Keezer said.
“It is underfunded and oversubscribed every single year,” Keezer said of the funds that are typically exhausted soon after the beginning of the fiscal year every July.
She knows of 19 productions – 15 feature movies and four television shows – that are prepared to film in the Pittsburgh region between now and November that could hinge on whether the tax credit program is expanded. Otherwise, she said, those productions will move to places with better tax incentives.
“It’s a worldwide competition for this business,” Keezer said. “Unlike most (industries), they can pack up and move anywhere.”
She said the competition is especially fierce in neighboring states on the eastern side of Pennsylvania. New York set aside $420 million for its tax credit program while New Jersey just recently boosted its incentive.
Keezer estimates the film industry brings about $100 million in economic returns to the Pittsburgh region every year – except in 2020 during the pandemic – and there are about 20,000 people who work in various parts of the film industry statewide. In addition, the industry gives an economic boost to small businesses, such as restaurants and vendors.
The 25% tax credit is available for film productions in which 60% of expenditures are made in Pennsylvania. An additional 5% tax credit is available for productions that meet other criteria that include using local sound stages that qualify.
Keezer said $250 million in annual tax incentives is needed to make Pennsylvania more competitive across the country and world, but reaching half that number with Bartolotta’s bill is an attainable goal.
“Without incentives, there is no work. None,” Keezer said. “We have to make this work.”
Local films and shows that have benefited from the program recently include the Showtime series “American Rust” filmed in Donora in March, and Netflix shows “The Chair” filmed at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington this spring and “I Am Not Okay With This” shot last year in Brownsville before the start of the pandemic.
Jeff Kotula, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, applauded Bartolotta’s effort to expand the tax credit and pointed to the region’s rich cinematic history that includes the award-winning movie “Silence of the Lambs,” portions of which were filmed at the former Western Center hospital in what is now Southpointe, along with the thrilling scene inside Buffalo Bill’s house at a residence along Youghiogheny River near Perryopolis.
“The production of film and television in our county not only increases economic spending with our local businesses, but also promotes Washington County and our community on a large scale – ultimately expanding our tourism opportunities,” Kotula said in a written statement.
The expanded tax credit bill being pushed by Bartolotta comes as negotiations on the state budget began Monday in Harrisburg. Sam Denisco, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said the bill is “getting traction,” but it’s too early to know if the film tax credits will be expanded.
“We do know our members take advantage of it and it does create jobs,” Denisco said, adding the film tax credit is one of many fiscal policies that will be debated during budget negotiations.
The state-run Pennsylvania Film Office did not respond to a phone message seeking comment on the proposal.
Former governor Ed Rendell signed legislation creating the tax credit program in 2004, and it became operational in 2007, ranging from $10 million to $75 million in annual funds available to crews.