Commentary: Quest to keep production dollars turns into a survival of the flushest

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The film-incentive business is a hot topic these days.

As the recession throws some states' programs into disarray, others are snapping up whatever production they can to keep jobs and income within their borders. Any incoming production, film or TV, is touted and celebrated as if it's the Space Race and America just claimed the moon.

In a flag-waving move, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom this week issued a news release announcing that the city would host the production of the pilot for NBC's medical drama "Trauma."

Just the pilot, mind you, not the series.

The hoopla underscores how competitive the environment has become and how desperate cities and states are for production jobs. "Trauma" is estimated to bring in $7 million to San Francisco though the hiring of local crew, paying local taxes, using city services and patronizing local business, the mayor's office said. The city also figures that about 340 jobs will be created for the four-week shoot, which is expected to begin this month.

(Of course, the next step is to make sure the series continues to shoot in San Francisco, which hasn't seen a TV show based there since "Nash Bridges" folded its tent in 2000.)

Not all press events these days are for good news. "Life on Mars" stars Harvey Keitel, Jason O'Mara and Michael Imperioli joined labor leaders Monday at New York's Kaufman Astoria Studios to push legislators to continue funding New York's state production tax credits.

In 2008, the Empire State allocated $460 million for its incentive program intended to last though 2013. But the credits ran out in February -- after 10 months. Showing what kind of fair-weather friend Hollywood can be, shows began moving out of New York City when it began to look as though the state, because of the recession, wasn't going to throw more credits into the dowry.

As a result, Fox's "Fringe" took off for Vancouver's greener pastures, then NBC Universal syndicated series "Maury" left for Connecticut. (And "Mars"? After its show of unity, the period cop drama was canceled. The two events were unrelated.)

Now New York is on the defensive and trying to be realistic, knowing the state is running a $14 billion budget deficit. Empire State Development now proposes reducing its program from a 30% below-the-line tax break to a 20% break and capping the scheme at $100 million a year -- at the same time making sure funds would be evenly distributed among studio features, indie productions and TV shows to keep some form of incentives alive.

One bit of news in New York's favor is the imminent start of production on the Disney tentpole "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," which is sure to bring in jobs.

Another state on the defensive is Wisconsin. It has a 25% tax credit, but in mid-February Gov. Jim Doyle proposed replacing it with $500,000 in grants that would go to projects that create permanent jobs.

"Permanent" jobs have become the key issue after the state came under fire from locals for helping Hollywood, not the local economy, and now it is a battle of spreadsheets.

"We'll have to fight," Film Wisconsin's Scott Robbe said. "And in the end we will win, because we can prove that in the first year we have created thousands of new work hours."

Connecticut seems to be a bright spot in the incentives maelstrom. Besides "Maury," it scooped up two other NBC Uni talkers, "The Steve Wilkos Show" and "The Jerry Springer Show," both at Chicago's expense.

Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell said the NBC Uni move to the Rich Forum Theater in Stamford would bring 150-200 jobs and an infrastructure investment of more than $3 million. It comes on the heels of the recent opening of Blue Sky Studios' new Greenwich headquarters.

"Jobs are very important these days no matter what the industry," says George Norfleet of Connecticut's commission on culture and tourism's film division. "People want to go to movies and people still want to make movies. That makes film production, while not recession-proof, recession-resistant. And the competition is on for those jobs."
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