S.C. Film Incentives: ‘B’ Movie for Sure

July 6, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveThe summertime movie season is upon us once again. During this time, if you decide to head off to a theater to bask in leisurely, overpriced entertainment for a couple of hours (at least it’s out of the heat), here’s something to consider:

You might not know it, and you might not care, but you are helping to pay for the movies in another way besides a box-office ticket and those at-these-prices-I-could-get-that-operation-I-need munchables from the concessions stand.

True, this other way is an indirect payment. But it costs you nonetheless – in the form of tax breaks and subsidies for film production in the great state of South Carolina.

No doubt, state government loves its Hollywood welfare. After all, there is a Hollywood, S.C. (East Hollywood, maybe?). You know, that little town about 20 miles west of Charleston as the crow flies.

What, you’ve never heard of that Hollywood?

Well, it makes no nevermind, really, as Hollywood sure has heard of South Carolina, what with the state offering a script of film production tax goodies longer than a roster of B-list actors in the average made-for-TV movie.

Let’s see, there’s:

  • a 20 percent rebate on wages paid to actors and production personnel who are subject to the state income tax;
  • a 30 percent refund on goods and services purchased, rented or leased from South Carolina merchants;
  • a sales tax exemption;
  • income tax credits;
  • and no charge for filming on state property.

Not bad, huh?

But all of those breaks help lure filmmaking to South Carolina and boost the state’s economy and create jobs – jobs, jobs, jobs. So taxpayers win, right?

It’s debatable to say the least, actually.

In 2008, College of Charleston economics professor Frank Hefner looked at nine in-state productions in 2006-2007 and found that the state’s coffers lost 81 cents for each tax dollar that was rebated to those projects.

Granted, not all films necessarily receive state subsidies. But if productions meet a few basic criteria, they can obtain the freebies fairly quickly and easily.

Indeed, there is no cost-benefit distinction as to which productions qualify for the incentives. And we’re talking regardless of the quality of a movie, too. Yes, all of them can cash in on the giveaways – the good, the bad and the ugly. (Wait, isn’t there a spaghetti western named something like that?)

To be sure, and lest we digress like so many weak plot lines, some really good flicks have been made in the Palmetto State, or at least partly filmed here: Forrest Gump, The Big Chill, Full Metal Jacket, The Great Santini, to name just a few.

But at the same time there’s also those pesky “bad” and “ugly” categories.

So, with that in mind – and understanding that this is rather subjective – here’s a synopsis of precisely 10 of those gems, with a view toward testing your sensibilities regarding the state’s (read: your) taxpayer subsidies for the moviemaking industry:

  • Nailed: What a great way to kick off the list. We’ll just let the Internet Movie Database, IMDB.com, do the talking on this one: “A small-town waitress gets a nail accidentally lodged in her head causing unpredictable behavior that leads her to Washington, D.C., where sparks fly when she meets a clueless young senator who takes up her cause – but what happens when love interferes with what you stand for?” Filmed in Columbia and starring Jake Gyllenhall, Jessica Biel and James Marsden, this movie is so good the filming of it was never even finished.
  • Death Sentence: Look, Kevin Bacon was awesome in Stir of Echoes, Mystic River and others. But this 2007 creation in the Capital City? It might have been a sorely needed boost to Columbia’s self-esteem, but Death Sentence takes gratuitous violence to a gruesome new level for Cola Town. And those indistinguishable license plates, what’s up with that?
  • Ace Ventura – When Nature Calls: Sorry, but, if the name doesn’t say enough about this entry on the list, its premise should – that of a mindless sequel focused on a “pet detective” (Jim Carrey) who engages in what Wikipedia describes as “persistent, almost pathological vulgarity and exceedingly flamboyant, extroverted behavior,” with quirks that include “grasping his butt cheeks and moving them as to talk.” Segments of this 1995 classic were filmed on Edisto Island and in a community near there named Green Pond.
  • Major League – Back to the Minors: This is the third installment in the moronic Major League franchise about a hapless minor-league baseball team. But, hey, at least they kept Charlie Sheen (aka Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn) out of this one. Shot mostly in the Charleston area, it was released in 1998.
  • Nutty Professor II – The Klumps: Maybe we’re just biased against comedies, but seriously, taxpayer subsidies for this ridiculousness of 2000? So what if part of it was made in Lake City, we want our money back.
  • The Rage – Carrie 2: What’s with bad follow-ups coming to the Palmetto State? Say what you will about Carrie (it was creepy; it was gory), it nevertheless had a certain originality and edge to it. The sequel? Not much better as a second act than Rambo: First Blood Part II. South Carolina filming location: Winthrop University. Release date: 1999.
  • Shag: No disrespect to the beloved dance form and all, but we could live without the movie. A girls-meet-boys venture in Myrtle Beach just isn’t our type of getaway, and 1989 wasn’t a particularly great year anyway, especially for music (The B-52’s’ Cosmic Thing notwithstanding).
  • Hellblock 13: OK, this 1999 video release really – um – taxes our tolerance for this film subsidies thing. Yes, chock another one up for Columbia – this time about a death row serial killer who reads three horror stories to her soon-to-be executioner. Way to represent, “Where Friendliness Flows.” (Oops, almost forgot: Columbia’s eminent leadership has changed the city’s nickname again … to “Famously Hot.” We don’t even want to know how much that cost us. … On second thought, yes we do!)
  • WWE Raw Family Reunion: Oh yeah – no list of this kind would be complete without this “pro wrestling” TV entry from 2006. Yet another notch in the Columbia canon.
  • And, last but not least of course, Head Cheerleader, Dead Cheerleader: Need we say more?

Now, naturally some people would likely disagree with this characterization of one or more of these movies. But what are we to do – create some sort of Orwellian taste board to decide which films are worthy of subsidies and which ones aren’t?

Yet, when it comes to economic development incentives, often times that’s exactly how they work – the proverbial picking of winners and losers.

And, from a fairness standpoint, isn’t that fundamentally problematic?

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.