After seven years without offering tax incentives for film and TV production, New Jersey is poised to implement aggressive new benefits to producers that would be worth up to $425 million over five years. Proponents and observers of the humming production scene in and around New York City say the move is likely to trigger more shoots in the state and the construction of new studio space.
Democratic legislators in New Jersey passed a bill that would extend credits of up to 30% (capped at $75 million a year) for qualified film and TV production expenses and up to 20% (with an annual cap of $10 million) for digital media content production. The program would last through 2023. Eight South Jersey counties will see slightly higher incentives than the rest of the state, 35% for film and TV and 25% for digital. Gov. Phil Murphy has indicated he will sign the tax measure into law in the coming weeks as part of the annual budget process.
Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Classics and a longtime New Jersey resident, has helped spearhead the drive to restore the incentives, which were cut by Murphy’s predecessor, Republican Chris Christie. “New York is overflowing,” Bernard told Deadline in an interview. “And people are tired of shooting there. There are a lot of rules and restrictions that weren’t there when the incentives started.”
In the 2000s, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut all joined the nationwide boom of states aiming to lure productions with rich tax breaks, under the assumption that beneficial economic activity would result. As local vendors, hotels and restaurants would see an influx of business, the thinking went, economic stimulus would result. After the financial crisis, when most state governments became strapped for cash, a lot of programs were pared back or abandoned, though Georgia, New York and New Mexico have stuck with their 30% incentives. New Jersey’s previous 20% incentive began in 2005 but Christie, in addition to his qualms about the claims of an economic boost, objected to the image projected by certain productions, especially MTV’s Jersey Shore.
Republicans have maintained that view and also Christie’s complaints that the economic impact did not outweigh the lost tax revenue. The non-partisan Office of Legislative Services recently issued a note saying it expects the bill to produce “a negative fiscal net impact of indeterminate magnitude on the state, considering that the bill does not require tax credit-receiving expenses to yield a net fiscal benefit to the state.”
One advantage is the number of residents of the state already working in the entertainment business — currently estimated at about 14,000, according to state agencies. “If you look around the country, the places that have had success with incentives have a large number of workers,” Bernard said. In addition to available workers, New Jersey has unoccupied buildings that could be easily converted to studio space. “There are so many pockets of cities of where there are warehouses or other buildings that people are looking to do conversions,” he said. “I’ve talked to four different people who are looking to make those conversions as soon as this goes through.”
Tax breaks would unlock investment in new studios to help New Jersey compete with New York, where just across the Hudson River mainstays like Silvercup, Steiner Studios and Kaufman-Astoria are booked solid. The Garden State is also, by most accounts, the birthplace of American cinema. Thomas Edison matched the innovations of the Lumière Brothers from his laboratory in West Orange and many of the earliest silent films were shot along the cliffs of nearby Fort Lee.
Boosters of New Jersey point out that unlike New York City, which has seen a boom in production not only due to incentives but also the mushrooming realm of original episodic TV, New Jersey offers a mix of locations within a reasonable drive. The state mixes dense urban neighborhoods and ecelctic architecture with beaches, farms and rustic wilderness.
Tom Hall, the executive director of the Montclair Film Festival, whose seventh annual edition is on until May 6, noted memorable indie films from the state’s past, like The Station Agent and Garden State, made memorable use of the state’s locations. Ditto The Sopranos, perhaps the ultimate modern statement about New Jersey life — or, at least, mob life.
Hall said after that upbeat run for the industry in the 2000s, an alarm bell went off with HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. The saga about the rise and ferment of Atlantic City opted to build replica sets of the iconic boardwalk at New York’s Steiner Studios instead of using actual Jersey locations. “That was the line-in-the-sand moment for us,” Hall said. “We looked at our friends in Atlanta, who have a robust film and TV industry” including Atlanta, the Walking Dead and numerous films. “Everybody would like to see that model here.”