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Film industry makes case to continue $1 billion Georgia tax break

Georgia’s growing film industry made its case Wednesday to state lawmakers — who are studying the effectiveness of business tax breaks — to continue funding what has been called the most lucrative movie and television incentive in the country.

The producers of an entertainment industry study and Georgians who work and have invested in the business told a joint House-Senate tax credit study committee that the state was getting a great return on the tax break that lawmakers first approved in the mid-2000s. And they expect continued growth in production facilities and filming in the years to come, thanks in part to the tax credit.

“The future of this business is in your hands,” said Gray Television CEO Hilton Howell, whose company purchased the former General Motors plant in Doraville to turn it into Assembly Studios. “Don’t lose what you’ve got. You’re winning.”

Howell was one of several presenters to speak during a four-hour hearing in Athens before a committee that will recommend whether any of the state’s dozens of tax breaks should be eliminated, reduced or expanded.

The film tax credit has drawn substantial attention because the industry has exploded in the state over the past decade. It is also a big target at the Capitol because it is one of the biggest tax breaks lawmakers have approved. That has meant industry lobbyists have had to work double time to put down efforts to cap the incentive.

State auditors have called the industry’s tax credit of about $1 billion a year the most lucrative of its kind in the country.

Earlier this year, then-state fiscal economist Jeffrey Dorfman told the joint House-Senate panel that continuing huge tax breaks for “mature industries,” such as Georgia’s film industry, makes less sense and that the state “should be ,looking to shrink or end those credits.”

Ahead of the hearings beginning this spring, film industry advocates put out a glossy, lengthy report compiled by the Georgia State University Creative Media Industries Institute touting the benefits of the film tax credit. Backers say the tax break has led to a mushrooming of the movie and TV production industry in the state that brought $4.4 billion in direct spending here last year.

A report by Olsberg SPI, London-based consultants who do work for the industry, put the overall economic impact of the industry in Georgia even higher and said it was responsible for just under 60,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Eleanor Jubb, associate director of the firm, said a survey of industry officials found 92% said they wouldn’t have invested in Georgia without the tax credit.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, a co-chairman of the study committee, said surrounding states without any tax breaks, or with much smaller ones, have also hosted a lot of filming in recent years.

“No doubt it has brought jobs to Georgia, no doubt it’s been a boon to get companies to come here,” Hufstetler said. “I’m not sure I am comfortable with a survey of people saying ‘What would you do if it (the tax break) wasn’t here?’ ”

Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, another member of the committee, also questioned some of the report’s economic impact findings. “We value the industy,” he said. “When I get numbers like this, I say, ‘How could that be?’ “

But Frank Patterson, president of the massive Trilith Studios in Fayette County, said the film tax credit has helped the industry flourish in Georgia and produced a stable economic environment for companies to make mega-investments in the state.

“These dollars would not have been invested without the tax credit,” he said.

The film tax credit is popular at the Capitol, and leaders aren’t talking about doing away with it.

However, Hufstetler has proposed putting a $900 million-a-year cap on the fast-growing credit. Under pressure from industry lobbyists, Senate leaders backed away from that proposal after it passed Hufstetler’s committee near the end of the 2022 session.

Industry officials have said there have been nearly 1,000 film productions outside of metro Atlanta, and the industry’s report pointed to big job growth there.

That’s an important selling point because almost all of the General Assembly’s majority Republican leadership comes from outside metro Atlanta.

The state Department of Audits and Accounts plans to put out a new review of the film tax credit program by the end of the year.

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