On funny money, the movie industry and economy

The recent warning from the Gloversville Police Department about the insidious local circulation of “Motion Picture Use Only” funny money — bills used for TV and film productions that feature distorted portraits but otherwise look similar to real currency — has me thinking about real money and real movies and whether either of those might ever return to the area.

I don’t know where the Motion Picture Money came from, but it would be interesting if it was somehow connected to an actual film production, like the Johnny Knoxville movie “Weightless”, which shot scenes in Fulton County in 2015. Perhaps some prop cash from the production was held onto by someone locally and then after nearly two years of waiting for the film to hit theaters, decided to release the faux dough on an unsuspecting populace. For the record “Weightless” is still in post-production, according to imdb.com.

Our area does not have a long and storied history with Hollywood, although I’m told some film production has occurred here and interest periodically bubbles up. Economic development and tourism experts locally tell me that marketing an area for film is very different than the typical positive image promoted by Fulton and Montgomery counties. Film producer Benjamin Bickham, who shot and cast a horror movie in Montgomery County a few years ago, famously said he had been scouting for a city with a “post-apocalyptic feel” and Amsterdam fit the mold. The producers of “Weightless” were apparently interested in Fulton County in part for its mobile homes.

Astute readers, I’m sure, will school me on a longer list of films shot in Fulton County, but the only one I could come up with is the 1991 film “Out of the Rain”, starring Bridget Fonda. I know there was an episode of the X-Files in the ’90s that took place, fictionally speaking, at the Fulton County Airport, but, needless to say, it was not shot here. The greater Capital Region has had more examples, probably the best being the Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling movie, “The Place Beyond the Pines,” which was filmed mostly in Schenectady County and features the city of Schenectady prominently in the story. That’s a great movie.

Gloversville lost its chance at that kind of glory when Richard Russo’s novels, based on his life growing up here, were made into movies and TV shows. Russo’s novel, “Nobody’s Fool,” was made into a film starring Paul Newman in 1994, but it was filmed in the Hudson Valley town of Beacon. “Empire Falls,” the story of which takes place in Maine [boo!] but is still about Gloversville, was made into a 2005 HBO miniseries staring Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Newman and was filmed in Maine locations like Ogunquit, Kennebunkport, and York. Wouldn’t it have been amazing if they had been shot in Gloversville?

New York state’s film production and post-production tax credits — which offer a tax credit for 30 percent of qualified production costs to companies that shoot movies in New York state and an additional 5 percent for films for post-production costs for companies operating in New York state outside the New York City metro area — were meant to help incentivize movie production in upstate New York, so we wouldn’t keep missing out of opportunities like Russo’s film projects. New York state even paid $15 million to build a sound studio at Collamer Crossings Business Park in DeWitt, so more post-production work could be done upstate.

But it’s been a few years now since the film production tax credits were put in place, and, other than the Knoxville movie and Nickelodeon celebrity Drake Bell filming a pilot for a reality TV show, we haven’t seen much local impact.

A report on the film tax credit, titled Economic Impact of the Film Industry in New York state — 2015 and 2016, was published in January. The report, which was required by law and conducted by Camoin Associates, of Saratoga Springs, shows that of the $6.3 billion in spending associated with the tax credit in 2015 and 2016, only about $575 million was spent in areas outside of New York City, a ratio of about 9 to 1.

A New York Times article by Jesse McKinley, published Aug. 22, profiled the DeWitt sound state, which, according to the article, appears to be largely empty much of the year, with some of its “tenants” inactive and or mired in scandal.

Camoin Associates, which also wrote the report for the film tax credit for 2013-2014, clearly show with their research that the state’s film tax credit has helped New York state regain its share of film industry spending, which had been falling in the early 2000s as aggressive tax incentives in southern states pilfered projects away from New York. But the credit hasn’t seemed to be enough to ignite a movie-making economic engine in upstate.

State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, recently called for $45 million to be cut from the state’s $420 million film and television production tax credit, which has been called a tax break for Hollywood millionaires, to be diverted to help increase salaries for direct care workers who, “provide compassionate care to some of New York’s most vulnerable populations, people with developmental disabilities.”

I can’t disagree with him, but what I would prefer would be a major increase in the upstate New York film production tax credit because having only a 5 to 10 percent tax credit advantage over downstate clearly isn’t enough. We don’t have the film production ecosystem of skilled workers and production companies to make it anything more than a chore to come up and make movies here.

This film tax credit illustrates what I think is a long-standing problem with the collation of lawmakers that make up the Republican majority in the senate. Upstate Republican senators represent constituents who furiously oppose state taxes and spending, even though their districts contribute very little in tax revenue to the state’s overall budget. The entire Capital Region only accounts for about 3.8 percent of state tax revenues according to the Rockefeller Center, and Fulton County is easily much less than 1 percent. Upstate Republicans are locked in a partnership with downstate Republican senators who really do represent constituents who pay for the lion’s share of state government. New York City contributes 45.1 percent and the downstate suburbs pay for another 27.4 percent. But downstate Republicans aren’t as keen for the major mandate reform battles that would need to happen to really change state spending. They do want their share of the state’s tax credits and state education aid, and it’s hard to say they shouldn’t get it, since they are paying for almost all of it.

But maybe we could convince them to spike the upstate film tax credit to 60 percent of qualified costs in exchange for another 5 percent for them, why not? We need some kind of industry up here and tourism and entertainment could be it.

People in our area are so desperate for money, they get their hands on $50 and $100 bills with cartoonishly scowling Grants and bug-eyed Franklins and they actually try to spend them. We need help here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of this newspaper.

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