Film, TV industry pushing NJ to keep tax credit

June 9, 2010 6:18:17 PM PDT
With a television series' dismantled set as a backdrop, a procession of actors, producers and directors made their case Wednesday for New Jersey to extend its tax credit for production companies, an incentive that could be cut from the state budget by the end of the month.

Representatives from "Mercy" and "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" urged Republican Gov. Chris Christie to reconsider ending the 20 percent tax credit the state has offered since 2006 to lure movie and TV production companies to the state. Both TV series are filmed largely in New Jersey.

Other productions to film in New Jersey in recent years include TV drama "The Sopranos" and feature films such as "The Wrestler" starring Mickey Rourke as a professional wrestler past his prime and "Julie and Julia" starring Meryl Streep as cooking legend Julia Childs.

"If there hadn't been a credit program in place, New Jersey would not have been an option" as a location for "Mercy," series producer Jim Bigwood told the hearing chaired by state Senate Budget Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo, a Democrat and supporter of the tax credit.

Wednesday's hearing was held in the warehouse where hospital drama "Mercy" has been filmed since last year. The series was not renewed by NBC but had been considered for cable, a possibility that was nixed because of uncertainty over New Jersey's tax credit, according to Brian O'Leary, tax counsel for NBC Universal.

O'Leary contrasted the fate of "Mercy" with that of "Law and Order: Criminal Intent," a New York-filmed series that NBC dropped but opted to move to USA Network.

"There was a stable credit in place in New York at the time that allowed that to happen," he said.

Critics have characterized New Jersey's film tax credit as an unnecessary handout to Hollywood. Christie has vowed to cut it from the state budget that must be passed by July 1.

"Like so many other items and programs in virtually every corner of the state budget, cuts had to be made and priorities considered in closing a $10.7 billion budget gap," Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said Wednesday. "Unfortunately, many things we would like to have kept could not be saved this year."

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have some form of tax credit program for production companies, and some offer credits as high as 35 to 40 percent. Companies qualify by meeting benchmarks for in-state hiring and spending.

New Jersey is the only state considering ending its tax credit program for budgetary reasons, according to Vans Stevenson, senior vice president for state government affairs for the Motion Picture Association of America. Some states are expanding their programs, he said.

Many of Wednesday's speakers described the ripple effect a television production can have. A scene on "Special Victims Unit" requires makeup artists, contractors, set designers and dressers, truck drivers, caterers and many others, said Tamara Tunie, who plays a medical examiner on the show.

"It's one scene on one episode on one show, and there are hundreds of people working to make it happen," she said.

"Special Victims Unit" has paid about $540 million in wages over 12 years to its cast and crew, not counting its featured stars, said producer Gail Barringer. The show also has paid about $150 million to New Jersey vendors over that time, she said.

According to the MPAA, about 7,000 direct jobs were related to production in New Jersey in 2008, an increase of nearly 1,000 jobs from 2006. New Jersey vendors received about $507 million in business from production companies, compared to $387 million in 2007, the association said.