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Legislature drops key part of motion picture rebate package

By JACK WEATHERLY

The bad news is that a key component in the Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program will fade to black after July 1.

The good news is that the cash rebate on 25 percent of the salaries paid to nonresidents of Mississippi is the only part that was lost.

Going into the current session of the Legislature, talk from the top was that, in a tight budgetary year, putting money into a “noncore” program was not prudent.

A December 2015 study by the legislative Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, found that taxpayer investment in the industry returned only 49 cents for every dollar spent.

Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Phillip Gunn all cited that finding in taking their position.

House Bill 711 was approved in the lower chamber and sent to the Senate Finance Committee, where it died and was not brought up for a vote by the full chamber.

The measure would have amended act 57-89-7 by pushing back the sunset provision on the nonresident rebate to July 1, 2020.

Still on the books are the resident payroll rebate, 30 percent; “investment rebate,” 25 percent of the money spent with Mississippi companies, and a reduced, 1.5 percent sales and use tax on technical equipment bought in the state and used to make movies.

A production must make at least a $50,000 expenditure in the local market, with a limit of $10 million rebate cap.

The austerity move comes at a time when 15 feature films were made in the state last year, according to data gathered from the Mississippi Film Office. That ties the record set in 2014, data show.

Robbie Fisher, a Mississippi based producer, said that already seven productions are scheduled for the first quarter.

Fisher, president of Jackson-based Crossroads Film Society, said she did not have figures on non-resident salary rebates.

Active Entertainment began shooting movies in Mississippi in 2016 after Louisiana tightened its incentives program, said Chief Operating Officer Daniel Lewis.

Lewis a native and lifelong resident of Louisiana, said the studio, which maintains its headquarters in Baton Rouge, produced 35 films between 2007 and 2015, and two in Mississippi last July that have appeared on the Lifetime network: “Nanny Seduction,” premiered on Feb. 26 and “A Deadly Affair,” on March 5. Another, “River Sharks,” which was shot at Ocean Springs, will appear on the Syfy network in July, he said.

Mississippi has a “young, hungry work force” but the cutback puts the young industry at a “tipping point.” The Mississippi Film Office was established in 1973 by then-Gov. Bill Waller. The incentives program was established in 2012.

“The goal is to have in-state talent,” and that is gaining some traction, he said.

Lewis estimates that about 65 percent of his costs are for nonresidents’ salaries – from director, to cinematographer to set and fashion designers on down. Losing the 25 percent rebate will increase his costs by about 16 percent, he said.

Twenty-six unemployed Mississippians were hired for his most recent film, he said. Two other projects have gotten approval for rebates from the Mississippi Development Authority and will be finished before July 1, Lewis said.

“I hope there is something in the 11th hour to save this,” he said.

Otherwise, he said, the studio may look at returning to Louisiana or trying Georgia.

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