California lost more than $1 billion to runaway production last year. And yet, as film and TV productions flee to more hospitable locales, the California Film Commission has seen its budget whacked by nearly 30% since 2009 and its staff cut by more than half in the past 10 years. State budget documents show that the CFC’s current annual budget is $1.43 million – the same as last year but down $593,000 from a high of $2.02 million five years ago. States and cities across the country are pouring money into their film commissions to lure film and TV productions and jobs. And while legislators in Sacramento contemplate passage of a new film and TV incentives package, the CFC must combat runaway production with a meager staff of 10 – down from more than 20 in 2003.
The competition is outspending and out-staffing California by at least 20-to-1. Unlike rival commissions, the CFC is fighting a defensive battle, trying to keep other states from poaching its film and TV jobs. In that sense, the CFC is battling 49 other film commissions singlehandedly all at once. And while the CFC may have the largest operating budget of any state film office, it is badly outnumbered in a 49-to-1 fight. And relative to its state budget, California is giving less to its film commission than every other state in the Union.
The Illinois Film Office has a budget of $1,32 million, which is almost equal to the CFC’s, even though Illinois’ $36 billion state budget is only one-quarter that of California’s $152 billion. Arizona’s $9.4 billion state budget is just 1/16th that of California’s, but its film commission’s $612,500 operating budget is about half that of California’s – and the Arizona film office doesn’t even have to administer a tax incentives program, which the state dumped in 2010. Georgia’s $20 billion state budget, meanwhile, is less than one-seventh that of California’s, but its $922,534 operating budget is nearly two-thirds that the of CFC’s. Together, these three states spend twice as much on their film commissions as California does.
Utah and Nevada have nearly identical numbers. Utah, with a state budget less than 1/10th California’s, allocates $773,000 to its film commission – almost exactly half that given to the CFC. If California gave as much to its film commission as Utah does, based on a percentage of its state budget, the CFC would have a budget of more than $7 million and a staff of 50. With five staffers and a budget of $775,376, the Nevada Film Office also has half the staff and half the budget of California’s, but that’s in a state less known for filmmaking than for gambling and legalized prostitution, whose $9 billion annual budget is 1/17th as large as California’s.
Even some cities have film commissions whose budgets rival California’s. Washington D.C., whose incentives program was suspended in 2011, has a film office with a staff of five and an operating budget of $906,978, while the Dallas Film Commission has an annual budget of nearly $400,000. Together, those two cities spend as much today as California did when Gov. Jerry Brown took office in 2011. Since then, the CFC has seen a small but steady budget increase each year.
Even little Wyoming, with a population of only 580,000, can afford to spend $250,000 a year for its film commission. On average, each of its citizens is paying more than 40 cents a year for their film commission. In California, each of its citizens is paying less than 4 cents.
Combined, the budgets of film offices in Virginia ($580,000), Colorado ($500,000), and Minnesota ($425,000) are more than California’s, even though their combined populations (19 million) are half that of California.
And there are dozens and dozens of other film commissions that are trying to lure productions and jobs away from California.
The North Carolina Film Office, which recently was privatized, has a staff of three and a budget of $460,000 – about a third of California’s, while the South Carolina Film Commission has a budget of about $400,000. The Oregon Governor’s Office of Film & Television has a staff of four and an annual budget of $576,808, while the New Mexico Film Office has a staff of six and a budget of $755,300. Combined, the budgets of the Oregon and New Mexico film offices are nearly equal to the CFC’s and their staffing is the same, even though their combined state budgets are one-fourth that of California’s. Florida’s Office of Film and Entertainment, with a staff of six, has an operating budget of $690,991.
On Monday, Eve Honthanerand, California’s Deputy Film Commissioner, told Deadline that many of the contacts and fees listed on the commission’s 30-Mile Studio Zone webpage were inaccurate and hadn’t been updated in 18 months “due to the fact that we’re short-staffed.” Even so, she insists that understaffing has not hampered the commission’s core mission. “While the Film Commission staff has been reduced over the years,” she said, “its ability to provide core services – including administration of the state’s film and TV tax credit program, location assistance, problem solving and permitting on state property – has been unaffected.”
But if the much-anticipated new film incentives do end up generating significantly more film and TV productions in the state, the CFC might find itself hard-pressed to fulfill its core mission with the same budget and staffing levels. And if past is prelude, the bean counters in Sacramento might end up scrimping on the CFC at the same time they’re boosting film incentives. Indeed, that’s what happened in 2003, when the began cutting the CFC’s staff in half. In 2009, the year California initiated its film incentives program, the number of staff was increased from eight to 10.