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Mass. tax credits used to cover movie stars' wages

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / January 12, 2011

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BOSTON—A quarter of the tax breaks given to movie companies under Massachusetts' film tax credit program have gone to help filmmakers cover the paychecks of millionaire Hollywood stars.

An Associated Press review of a Department of Revenue report on the tax credit program found that $82 million of the $330 million in film spending eligible for credits in 2009 went to pay the salaries of nonresident actors earning more than $1 million.

Under the program a filmmaker can apply for a tax credit equal to 25 percent of a film's production and payroll costs.

In 2009, film companies applied for a total of $82.4 million in credits in Massachusetts.

Critics have complained the state shouldn't be giving what amounts to tax subsidies for Hollywood stars, but supporters say that without the program, there would be virtually no feature films shot in Massachusetts.

The Department of Revenue considers every feature film shot in Massachusetts in 2009 as new spending directly related to the tax credit program. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia also have film tax credit programs, some more generous than Massachusetts.

While movie star wages make up sizable chunk of the tax credits, the salaries of Massachusetts workers also factored into the equation.

The report said film companies paid more than $42 million in salaries and wages to local workers in 2009. Supporters of the film credit program said those jobs wouldn't exist without the tax breaks.

"What we consider most important about the film tax credit is its long-term results, including the jobs created not only within the film industry but in local businesses," said Joe Maiella, president of Massachusetts Production Coalition, which represents the film industry.

Supporters of the tax break point out that movie stars do not directly receive a tax break. Instead the film companies that hire them are able to use their salaries, and other production costs, to request tax credits.

Backers also note that actors must continue to pay state taxes on all residual income they earn in future years for the films they make here.

Big money movies shot in Massachusetts in 2009 included the "The Fighter," chronicling the career of Lowell boxer Micky Ward and starring Boston native Mark Wahlberg; "The Social Network," depicting the origin of Facebook, co-founded by Mark Zuckerberg in his Harvard dorm room in 2004; and the Ben Affleck movie "The Town," focusing on a Boston bank heist crew.

All told, there were about 18 major movies and television productions in Massachusetts in 2009.

While there was no information in the Department of Revenue report about how much each individual film requested in tax credits, that is about to change.

A state law enacted last year requires revenue officials to begin collecting and reporting how much each film production is awarded in tax credits each year. The first report is expected in the spring of 2012 to reflect films shot in Massachusetts during 2011.

The new information won't reveal how much each actor is paid.

The film tax credit sparked a fierce debate last year on Beacon Hill after Gov. Deval Patrick proposed capping the tax credit program at $50 million, pointing to the state's tight fiscal times.

Industry representatives and labor unions protested and the proposed cap was defeated.

The number of films shot in Massachusetts dipped in 2010, but industry officials are hoping for a rebound in 2011.

Oversight of the film tax credit program has been transferred to the state Office of Travel and Tourism. The office has created an advisory group to help sell the state as a location for film production companies.

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Online:

Department of Revenue: http://www.mass.gov/dor

Massachusetts Film Office: http://www.mafilm.org