Virginia tax breaks attract filmmakers

Jordan Wilson

Staff Writer

Virginia’s film industry is walking on air, thanks to the state’s generous incentives for filmmakers looking to shoot their movies there.

Since July, filmmakers have come to Virginia in droves to shoot their films more cheaply, taking advantage of the incentives. Because many of these films have small budgets, the tax breaks allow production periods to progress without so much financial stress on the producers.

Projects are now being shot in many Virginia cities, including Roanoke (around Smith Mountain Lake), Hampton Roads and Richmond, where a TV movie called “Unanswered Prayers” is partially being filmed at Varina High School, in addition to another independent project being shot here in November.

“The grant money has been a godsend,” Virginia Film Office Marketing Manager Becky Beckstoffer said. “Without it, we would have far fewer productions being filmed here.”

There have been so many filmmakers coming here to make use of the incentives that the Virginia Film Office is actually out of money. “Until more money comes in, there is not a whole lot we can do,” Beckstoffer said.

There are two separate components to the tax breaks: the Governor’s Motion Picture Opportunity Fund and the Sales and Use Tax Exemption. Each serves essentially the same purpose, which is to create more jobs and to boost Virginia’s film industry.

The Governor’s Motion Picture Opportunity Fund, which began last July as a $2 million appropriation, serves as a grant to filmmakers who come to Virginia to shoot their movies. Filmmakers must have all their funding in place and apply for this grant before a production begins.

The Sales and Use Tax Exemption exempts production costs from the state’s 5% sales and use tax. Major items covered by the exemption include, but are not limited to: film development, equipment rentals, scripts and storyboards.  This exemption is realized at the time of purchase and can be obtained by submitting a form to the merchant at the time of purchase.

The incentives also have opened up internship opportunities within the Virginia Film Office to students in the VCU Cinema department, and generally have been helpful to the university and its students.

“I know that everyone who lives and works in the industry here is very excited about the incentives and their commercial potential,” Brookes Finnie, a VCU student in the Cinema department, said. Finnie will graduate from VCU next spring, and over the summer, worked on several short films for the department’s summer intensive.

The potential of the incentives is not up for any notable debate, as they certainly have assisted in stimulating the film industry in Virginia. But not everybody agrees that the incentives have been so successful thus far.

“I don’t think the state fully realizes that they get their money back on every dollar they put into the film incentives program,” Edwards said. “The incentives are a good step forward, but (the state) probably needs to do more.”

The last large-budget project to be shot in Virginia was the HBO mini-series “John Adams,” executive produced by Tom Hanks, and Edwards believes that until something that big happens in Virginia again, it’s hard to say whether the incentives have been a success.

Edwards, who now works as freelance photographer and camera assistant, sees the incentives as “a small drop in the bucket.” While more films are made in Virginia and the Richmond area, there is still room for the state’s film industry to expand. In the end, it comes down to how much the state is willing to invest financially, and the number of small and large-scale projects that come here to shoot.

Currently, more than 40 states offer incentives to filmmakers, most notably North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico and Michigan. North Carolina offers a 25% tax credit, Georgia offers a 30% tax credit and Michigan offers a rebate up to 42%. Beginning Jan. 1, 2011, Virginia’s new refundable tax credit program will take effect at a funding level of $2.5 million.

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