Assembly seeks to lure more film crews

House bill would raise movie rebates

March 22, 2007|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

Tired of being snubbed by Hollywood, Maryland legislators are moving to change the law to allow higher rebates for film productions in the state, which has been rejected as a site for shoots in favor of other locales that provide sweeter financial incentives.

"The thing about this industry that we're finding is that the competition is severe, and in order to continue to compete we're going to always have to stay on the cutting edge," said Hannah Byron, assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts.

But while the state could grant larger rebates under legislation approved yesterday, the measure doesn't change overall funding for the program. Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed a budget that includes $6.9 million, or level funding, for the next fiscal year. The Senate would leave the funding intact, but the House has proposed cutting that to $4 million.

"The governor is disappointed that the House cut funds from this particular program from his budget," spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said. "We're hopeful that the funding will be restored."

The bill, which passed the House of Delegates unanimously yesterday, lifts a $2 million-per-film cap on the rebate program and ties the formula for rebates to production costs, rather than employee wages. The Senate has not acted on the bill.

The program can be used by producers of films, commercials and animation projects that spend at least $500,000 in Maryland. Talk shows, student films and sports broadcasts do not qualify.

Maryland suffered the brush-off three years ago from the makers of a movie about the U.S. Naval Academy when they moved production of Annapolis from the capital city to Pennsylvania. Walt Disney Corp., which didn't get permission to use the academy as the setting because the script portrayed a midshipman involved in hazing and other acts, moved north when Pennsylvania offered a $2 million tax break.

That led the-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to ask for $6 million to cover the wage rebates of up to $2 million per film, and the bills authorizing the program passed unanimously in both chambers of the General Assembly.

"That industry spends a lot of money when they come to town," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Carroll County Republican and a sponsor of the authorizing bill. "And it's not just the faces in front of the camera. It's backstage workers, the production crew, catering companies. It's the hotels they stay in."

"It's sad that Annapolis was filmed in Philadelphia," Brinkley added.

More recently, John Waters' musical Hairspray was filmed in Toronto, even though Baltimore is where it is set. While other factors put Baltimore at a disadvantage, such as the lack of an appropriate sound stage, Byron said more financial backing might have enabled officials to put together a more enticing deal for the production to be done in Charm City.

Nearly 30 other states and the District of Columbia offer tax credits or wage rebate programs, and neighboring Pennsylvania has funding of $10 million, according to legislative analysts. Byron said Maryland legislators also should consider tax credits, which have proved successful in drawing filmmakers to Connecticut, Mississippi and other states.

And, Byron said, Maryland now has a new draw - the recently shuttered Maryland House of Correction in Jessup. She said officials hope to shop it as a potential production site.

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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