Arts Desk

Hearing Runs Gamut on Film Office, but Popcorn Tax Is Still Unpopular

Popcorn Tax: Folks are still meh on it.

The D.C. Council's Committee on Small and Local Business Development yesterday held a top-to-bottom hearing on the operations and objectives of the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. Although the panel's chairman, Vincent Orange, D-At Large, called the proceeding a "roundtable" two issues stuck out: the financial status of the film office's incentive program and Mayor Vince Gray's proposal last month to raise the sales tax on concessions sold at movie theaters.

Before a marathon witness list could begin, Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans took his seat on the dais and delivered a stemwinding lament on the state of film production in the District.

"We go out of our way to make it difficult," Evans began, noting that shooting in Washington demands of production companies a careful dance between city and federal agencies, and sometimes transit authorities as well. That the film office's coffers are practically depleted—spokeswoman Leslie Green recently told Washington City Paper that the incentive fund only contained $16,000 when her boss, Crystal Palmer, returned to agency in January—doesn't help, Evans said. Instead, films and television series that are set in D.C. are filmed where the economic benefits are more favorable.

"Remember No Way Out when Kevin Costner hops on the Georgetown Metro?" he asked the chamber, referencing the 1987 thriller that features a common, though entirely false trope about Metrorail. "That was in Baltimore. Why would anyone film in Baltimore over D.C.? Why would anyone go to Toronto? It's freezing there!"

But filming permits and incentives aren't the only bones Evans is picking with the film office right now. Evans, who chairs the Finance and Revenue Committee, was miffed last month that Gray's "popcorn tax" bill was referred to Orange's committee instead of his. However, the tax—the projected revenue from which would be used to fund the production incentive program and help lure the construction of a new multiplex east of the Anacostia River—was not technically being deliberated at the hearing.

After Evans' speech, the first batch of witnesses spoke at length about the film incentive programs of nearby states as well as what they called a lack of quality production facilities as reasons D.C. lags in attracting movie and television companies. Orange pointed out recent gains made by the Maryland and Virginia film offices. Veep, an upcoming HBO series being shot mostly in Baltimore but set in Washington, is expected to pump $25 million into Maryland's economy and employ nearly 2,000 locals, Orange said, while in Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell is expecting a statewide economic bounce of $35 million from Steven Spielberg's Abraham Lincoln biopic.

Under the scheme proposed by Gray's tax bill, 25 percent of revenue off the surtax on concessions would fund the District's film incentive program, though many of the first witnesses told Orange D.C. simply isn't competitive with similar programs around the country. Gordon Bijelonic, a California-based producer whose credits include the upcoming Annapolis-set drama Another Happy Day, said most of his film was shot in Michigan, which boasts what he called one of the most favorable and well-funded incentive programs in the country.

"Would a $10 to 12 million incentive fund get your attention?" Orange asked. Bijelonic replied that it "definitely" would.

After several more rounds of people involved in film production, Orange began calling on the movie theater operators who—if Gray's proposal is enacted—would be compelled to collect the popcorn tax, of which 75 percent of revenue would be used to encourage the construction of a movie theater in Ward 7 or Ward 8. Gary Klein, the vice president of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), suggested that real estate tax rebates or the easing of licenses would be better incentives for a theater chain. After the hearing, Klein warned that raising sales taxes at the snack bar would encourage people on the outskirts of the city to see movies in Maryland and Virginia.

Josh Levin, owner of the West End Cinema, also voiced his doubt about the benefits of an added sales tax.

"The No. 1 complaint we get at our concession stand is how high the sales tax is already—10 percent," he said. "Raising it by 50 percent will be that much more of a disincentive for potential concession sales, which how movie theaters make our money; we don’t really make money on the tickets." But Levin said that he "unequivocally" supports the city's goals of increased film production and the building a movie theater for underserved areas. "I believe that it is ridiculous that three of the city’s four quadrants have no movie theaters," he said.

Palmer spoke last, narrating the recent boom in state film incentive programs, citing New Mexico's as one of the most successful with its mix of aggressive rebate schemes and job-training programs for locals. And with the District's program outstripped by those of its neighbors, "we cannot compete effectively with other cities and states," said Palmer, who pushed for the mayor's bill as a remedy. "With a healthy incentives package to offer, Washington, D.C., will remain secure as the destination of choice for films and television shows dealing with government, politics, and espionage."

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