May 1, 2017 06:33 AM

Sen. Morrell's bills would direct tax credits to Louisiana production companies and artists. Production outside of New Orleans also encouraged.

Bills by Sen. J.P. Morrell to refocus the state's Motion Picture Tax Credits program seek to position the state to take advantage of shifts in the industry that are driving demand for more episodic, scripted productions.

The Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee was set to consider a raft of bills by Sen. Morrell when it met Monday morning in Baton Rouge, but his bills involving revision of the movie tax credits program will have the attention of Acadiana locals that are part of the movie industry. Morrell's SB177 and SB235 would shift the focus of the tax credit program toward supporting the in-state artists and companies that have developed over the 15-year life of the state's film tax credit program.

SB177 changes the tax rate of those working for companies that benefit from the film tax credit program. SB235 is where the big changes are made.

The bill would set the floor of projects eligible for tax credits at $300,000 (projects as small as $50,000 are currently eligible for credits under the existing program. It would retain the 30 percent tax credit now in the current law, but make additional credits available if certain conditions are met.

Movies or series that are shot outside the New Orleans area would be eligible for an additional 5 percent tax credit. Another 10 percent in tax credits could be available if the production is based on a Louisiana-written screen play. An additional 10 percent in tax credits could be awarded based on the size of the Louisiana payroll of the productions receiving the credits. The overall amount of the credits that could be awarded to any single production is reduced from $30 million to $20 million to allow the $180 million annual cap on credits to be used to support more productions.

Sherri McConnell
Photo by Robin May
Sherri McConnell of Louisiana Economic Development says the Morrell bills reflect input from the state's growing in-state film-making industry.

"Governor Edwards directed LED to review the film tax credit program last year and we've been talking with stakeholders trying to once again come up with a program that can build on what the earlier versions of what the program has created and position Louisiana to get a better return on our tax credit investments in this industry," McConnell explains. She was in Lafayette on Friday to talk about the legislation and the program.

"The industry has changed a lot since Louisiana first started offering film tax credits," McConnell says. "We think Sen. Morrell's bills position us to take advantage of those changes."

Primary among those changes has been the expansion of producers and outlets for original production work. Netflix and Amazon offer original episodic series to their subscribers, as does Hulu. Other online services are rumored to be considering breaking into the original content field. That is creating new demand for smaller, scripted productions that Morrell's bill seeks to position Louisiana to capitalize on.

"The interest in original content from these providers has created a huge demand for content," according to Kody Chamberlain, a Lafayette-based writer and artist whose work has appeared in a variety of media ranging from comics to movies to video games.

Kody Chamberlain
Photo by Robin May

Chamberlain says the additional tax credits for use of screenplays by Louisiana writers could draw more work to the state that could help feed the emerging content demand for scripted series. He also points to how the propose tax additional tax credit for productions shot outside of New Orleans could have affected a notable series that opened its first season based in Louisiana.

"The first season of True Detectives was about this area — Crowley, Lafayette, Rayne — but it was all shot in New Orleans," Chamberlain says. "Had that five percent additional tax credit been available then, it might well have been shot out here."

McConnell says Chamberlain and Adam Hensgens are examples of the kind of indigenous movie talent that the Morrell's revision of the film tax credits are designed to support.

"We have succeeded in building a talent base here over the past 15 years through the film tax credit program," McConnell says. "What we believe we can do with these changes is start directing more dollars to support that talent so that it can stay here."

Adam Hensgens
Photo by Robin May
Hensgens, a Crowley native, is heading up the Lafayette location of Bckstory, a non-profit that provides support and job training for film makers. The organization is based in New Orleans.

"We have a group people who work on each others' projects, basically," Hensgens says. He produced his own short for $8,000 that won a showing in the New Orleans Film Festival which has led to other work. He says Louisiana has a group of film makers who have been finding national audiences. He points to Baton Rouge film maker Sam Claitor as an example.

"Sam's made three movies that have cost about $750,000 each and they've all made money," Hensgens says. "I've worked on his projects, so have others. He's worked on the projects of some of the people who've worked with him."

The proposed changes in the state's film tax credit program, Hensgens says, position the state to help draw production dollars here in ways that would help further support the state's own talent.

McConnell says part of Morrell's bill would direct impose a two percent fee on those purchasing the credits and the proceeds from that fee would be used to support in-state talent.

Chamberlain says the changes in the industry are putting a premium on storytelling, talent that comes naturally to many in Louisiana. He points to industry examples where the storytellers are the key to a company's success.

"John Lassetter is a great storyteller and he's been the heart of Pixar," Chamberlain says. "William Joyce is the genius behind (Shreveport's) MoonBot Studios. I think their success points to the future of the industry being based on good stories. To get good stories, you need good writers. The changes in the tax credits would help support and keep writers here."

Chamberlain says he spends a good bit of time flying to and from California pitching story ideas. The typical project takes about three years to develop. Being based in California would make the business easier but he believes it would cut him off from the source of his ideas.

The shifts in the industry are also changing the power distribution inside the industry itself. All roads don't lead just to Hollywood anymore, according to Chamberlain.

"Look at what's winning awards these days," Chamberlain says. "It's smaller budget projects, stories that focus on stories, not the blockbusters loaded with special effects. These credits would help us produce more of these kinds of stories here."

Ultimately the Louisiana Legislature will decide whether this particular story has a happy ending.

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