I first wrote about Winter’s Bone on this blog nearly two years ago, when I visited the town of Rockaway Beach, Missouri, as some of its indoor scenes were being set up for shooting. I also presented my reactions to the completed movie in June 2010, after watching a screening in a small theatre in the company of director Debra Granik and many members of the cast and crew.
I’ve heard a judge and a handful of lawyers, who practice family law and criminal law in the counties where Winter’s Bone was filmed, voice their opinion that it fairly depicted the lives of many of the people they encounter in their work.
Winter’s Bone is an artistic, critical and popular success. But the question facing the Missouri legislature is whether the tax credits given to the film’s financial backers are a good deal for Missourians. In Missouri, the film tax credit amounts to less than 0.5% of the total of $2 billion of tax credits taken from 2005 through 2009.
Tax credits are an ineffective method of stimulating an economy. Probably no tax credit program, whether for film or manufacturing equipment, can be shown to generate more additional tax revenue than it costs, though some are probably less costly than others. No economy has ever stood still long enough to give a reliable measurement of a single tax-credit program, though economists have very sensitive models that estimate the multiplier effect of spending in one sector on other sectors.
In reality, tax credit programs and other tax expenditures are used to encourage activities that the legislature determines to be desirable. Tax credits which benefit persons who have political strength are deemed to be desirable and their economic justifications are deemed by the legislature to be plausible. Thus, we get scads of low-income housing tax credits, historic preservation tax credits, and enterprise zone tax credits. We get tax-exempt financing of stadium projects. We have unfair or irrational Missouri sales tax exemptions , for pesticides, but only if the pesticides are to be used on food; for toner used in the production of newspapers; and for computers and software purchased for use by architects and engineers.
Supporters of the Missouri film industry are pleading for continuation of the tax credit for movies, which is slated to expire in 2013, if it doesn’t die sooner. It’s a tiny part of the Missouri’s revenue problems. There are many other tax-credit programs that are 20 times larger and probably less effective.
I can’t imagine that great films made in Missouri such as Winter’s Bone or Up in the Air will boost tourism or promote economic development beyond the duration of filming. But I still want filmmakers to keep coming to Missouri and continue making great films that tell us things about ourselves and our neighbors. I don’t mind kicking in a little to help keep up the momentum.