Arts Desk

Gray Proposes Popcorn Tax Along With Major Overhaul to Film Incentive Program

Earlier this afternoon the Washington Business Journal reported that Mayor Vincent Gray is proposing a new vehicle to help finance the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development's longterm goal of enticing a movie theater chain to build a multiplex east of the Anacostia River. In legislation introduced in the D.C. Council by Chairman Kwame Brown, the mayor is proposing an additional 5 percent sales tax on concessions sold at Washington's existing movie theaters, proceeds of which would be used "as an incentive for the first major motion picture theater to open east of the Anacostia River in the District," the Business Journal wrote.

The film office was not saying much about it's movie-theater dreams last month, but the mayor's support for the idea should come as little surprise. Gray and film office chief Crystal Palmer have worked closely this year, including attending several meetings with studio executives in Hollywood.

If Gray's plan sounds eerily familiar, that's because it bears a striking resemblance to another proposal he made earlier this year that would have levied a 6 percent sales tax on theater and museum admissions. That idea was scuttled after strong opposition from the district's arts community and members of the council, but it was proposed simply as a revenue raiser to help balance the district's budget.

However, it appears on first glance that the concession tax would be collected by Washington's movie theaters and then used to incentivize the construction of what would inevitably be a competing theater. "If you built a movie theater across the street from my office on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue it would be the closest theater to Capitol Hill, H Street NE, and Anacostia," Stan Voudrie, a developer in Wards 7 and 8, told Washington City Paper in September. Right now, residents of those neighborhoods wanting to see a first-run release need to either schlep to the Regal Movie Theatres at Gallery Place or to a mulitplex in suburban Prince George's County.

Of course, the concession tax would apply as much to small, independent theaters as much as it does to big venues like Gallery Place or the AMC multiplex in Georgetown. Josh Levin, owner of West End Cinema, is less than thrilled about collecting additional sales tax on the snacks he sells at his three-screen cinema, though he says he applauds the city's efforts to build a theater east of the Anacostia.

"The sales tax on movie theater concessions right now is 10 percent, which many customers complain about; raising it by 50 percent will likely increase complaints all that much more," Levin writes in an email. "A 50 percent hike in the sales tax would impact us, and it would impact us negatively."

Also in Gray's proposal were major revisions to the film office's incentive program used to entice production companies to shoot movies and television shows in D.C. First, the rate at which productions are reimbursed for qualifying purchases while working here (equipment, hotel rooms) would be reduced from 42 percent to 20 percent. These payments would also be financed out of 25 percent of the collections from the concession tax, with the remainder going to the fund for the movie theater. Additionally, film companies' job training expenditures would be reimbursed at a rate of 40 percent, down from half, Washington Business Journal reported.

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