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Virginia offers millions of dollars each year in film incentives, but is that investment worth it?

Gene Page
A still from the show 'Dopesick', which partially filmed in Virginia.

The state spends more than $10 million a year to attract television shows and motion pictures to Virginia. Is it worth it?

In the last decade, Virginia taxpayers have forked over more than $85 million in tax credits and grants to attract television production and motion pictures to Virginia. And yet new numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show Virginia actually lost more than 800 jobs in video production and motion pictures during that time. Critics of Virginia's film incentives point to research that says these kinds of grants and tax incentives are a box office dud.

"All of that research comes to the same conclusion, and that's that these are losing money. And a lot of it," says Michael Thom, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy. He points to a recent report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission that shows these incentives lost 70% to 80%.

"I don't know many things in life that lose 70-80% that you would call super efficient."

He says lobbying from the industry and advocacy from state film offices have been successful in persuading states to fork over millions of taxpayer dollars in grants and incentives. But he says people should not be distracted by the bright lights and celebrity appeal.

"It creates the impression of success, but there's a bit of a bait and switch," Thom explains.

Andy Edmunds at the Virginia Film Office says the 800 jobs that have left Virginia over the last decade are a reflection that Virginia might need to be more aggressive with film incentives.

"These numbers do not surprise me that perhaps hundreds of jobs have left Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio and probably going to Georgia because they have a very aggressive incentive program," says Edmunds.

Georgia spends $600 million a year, which makes Virginia's $10 million a year seem like a bad sequel.

"One of the biggest heart breakers was the movie Hidden Figures, a Virginia story, an Academy-Award winning film," says Edmunds. "We had actually worked with the producer early on to get permission to use NASA Langley down in Hampton to film many of the scenes. But Hidden Figures, that great Virginia story, went to Georgia to film because of their film incentives."

Some of the money is in grants, which are at the discretion of the governor. Other money comes from tax credits, which were originally capped at $2.5 million a year, although it’s now $6.5 million a year.

"We would like to see the cap modified to specifically target episodic content because the work that can come year after year in television series and streaming series we believe can induce more infrastructure in Virginia," Edmunds says. "More sound stages, more small businesses."

Some other states have decided to ditch their film incentives, concluding that the money was not accomplishing all that much. Others, like Georgia, have decided to be more aggressive. For Virginia, the future is a script that has yet to be written.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.