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D.C.'s Attempt To Lure Filmmakers To City Gets Two Thumbs Down

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The 2010 movie "How Do You Know" was filmed in D.C., and it received a $500,000 windfall through a taxpayer-funded incentive program that a new report says isn't really working.
The 2010 movie "How Do You Know" was filmed in D.C., and it received a $500,000 windfall through a taxpayer-funded incentive program that a new report says isn't really working.

The reviews are in for D.C.'s film economic incentive fund and, you might say: two thumbs down.

Like many states, the District offers incentives and tax breaks for movie companies to film in D.C. But an analysis of the fund, obtained exclusively by WAMU 88.5, finds while the program may have helped movie producers, it hasn't been a good deal for District residents.

The 2010 movie "How Do You Know" may have bombed at the box office, but it certainly profited by filming in the District, receiving a $500,000 revenue windfall, courtesy of District taxpayers.

The movie—a romantic comedy staring Owen Wilson as a relief pitcher for the Washington Nationals—was one of three films that received incentives under the city's Film Economic Fund from 2007 to 2009.

According to a study of the program by the Oregon-based ECONorthwest, the film received a $2 million incentive to shoot in D.C., but spent only $1.5 million while filming in the city.

Overall, the study, which was commissioned by the District government, finds that for every dollar D.C. spent on the incentive program, it lost 77 cents. According to a city document, the analysis concludes the program is "costly and ineffective" and "not a practical use of D.C. taxpayers money."

Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, says he wasn't surprised by the findings.

"Like the movies themselves, film subsidies are very glitzy and have become increasingly popular in a lot states. But there's really not a lot of substance behind them. In fact, there is a lot evidence that they don't really pay for themselves," he says.

The authors of the study are not as critical of these types of programs as Lazere. They note that 41 states now have incentive programs similar to D.C., and overall they have helped states capture dollars from Hollywood, create jobs and in some cases boost tourism.

But as the authors point out, D.C. isn't able to tax the income of employees and film crews that aren't D.C. residents, so the city loses out and, in the words of the study, "tax revenues alone do not justify the program."

And the cash incentives D.C. offers film companies are much greater than most states, with D.C. providing in some cases double the incentive rate that others offer. Lazere says that strategy doesn't make a lot of sense.

"Some films they are going to have to be in D.C. if they want to film because they want the Washington Monument or the White House. They are going to come here no matter what. To get another film to come to the District and travel who knows how far to a place where its fair expensive and you obviously have to pour out a lot of cash to get them to come and as this example shows sometimes you spend more on them and they spend on you," he says.

A spokesperson for the city's Motion Picture and Television Department, the agency in charge of the fund, tells WAMU that the department is not at liberty to discuss the findings of the study and says it is still under review.

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