Gangster John Dillinger, subject of the new Johnny Depp movie "Public Enemies," needed a machine gun to get his hands on other peoples' money. Not so Michael Mann, the film's director. All he and other filmmakers need to pull off a heist is to flash a little Tinseltown glitz and say the magic word -- "jobs" -- and star-struck state legislators will roll out the red carpet and open other peoples' wallets for them.
Many states now pay film industry subsidies, which strikes me as the most egregious form of corporate welfare there is (as I've blogged about before). And those states that don't are feeling intense pressure to jump on the bandwagon. Even flat-busted-broke California is getting into the act, launching a new program that will give $500 million in tax breaks to movie-makers over the next 5 years.
But it's debatable whether these efforts pay any long-term economic dividends, since most of the jobs generated are short-term in nature. Being a movie extra, or catering on-the-set lunches, may put a few extra dollars in the pockets of locals. Having a movie star parachute into "fly-over country" injects a little excitement into the hinterland humdrum. But this isn't anything to build an economy on. And I'm skeptical about the jobs-generating potential of film-set tourism, since I've yet to plan a vacation based on the backdrop of some film I saw.
It's too early to tell whether Public Enemies will kill at the box office. But Mann already pulled off a respectable robbery of sorts, thanks to Wisconsin taxpayers who helped subsidize the film.
After questions were raised about whether the state can afford to be so generous, and whether the program generates a return on investment, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle wisely took a stand against the practice, vetoing a legislatively-approved cap on the giveaways. That's led to some whining among those who imagine that Wisconsin will reinvent itself as movie star Mecca. But it was the fiscally-correct thing to do.
Mann recently called cutting the subsidies "short-sighted," pointing out that he filmed more days than he intended to in the state thanks to the $4.6 million in tax credits he received. He would have filmed there even without the payouts, he conceded, but they prolonged his stay. And this can't all be reduced to some crass cost-benefit analysis, protested Mann. "The point is not just the dollars and cents we spend," he said. "It's what happens when the state is displayed that way to the world."
But wait. This is a gangster movie, set in the 1930s, in which the arch-outlaw blasts his way through bank jobs (and gets blasted in return by the FBI, eventually). Is that really any way to "display" the state of Wisconsin to the rest of the world? I'm sure kids all across America are just begging their parents to take them to Wisconsin next year, over Spring break, so they can see the actual spot where Johnny Depp, playing John Dillinger, blew someone away.
When Dillinger took other people's money, at least he did it honestly, at gun point. The massive tax heists being pulled off by filmmakers are almost more dishonest, and outrageous, because they act like they're doing us a favor even while they're picking our pockets.