Photo by Georges Biard / CC BY-SA 3.0
Businesses mostly maximize profits. Big businesses often discover one way to do this is to get special tax deals for their particular industry. Hollywood is a big business, and has followed this game plan in state capitols, including in Oklahoma City. Current state law provides “a cash rebate of 35-37% on qualifying Oklahoma expenditures to film and television productions filming in the state,” plus a sales tax exemption.
To put this into perspective, Oklahoma every year gives a handout to Hollywood equal to enough money to pay for nursing home care for over 200 Oklahomans.
The argument goes like this: filming movies costs money, some of that money gets spent in the community where filming takes place, and so politicians should pay off these companies in order to stimulate the economy. Now it is true, of course, economic activity is good for an economy. But when Hollywood moguls get checks from Oklahoma, someone still has to pay that bill. Oklahomans pay that bill.
We’ve written before about the principled case against these Hollywood handouts. But what about how these handouts are actually used, and who gets them?
It turns out that Harvey Weinstein was a beneficiary of Oklahoma’s largesse. His company produced and distributed "August: Osage County," which was filmed near Bartlesville. The movie’s director described the search for subsidies as a “Weinstein Company edict.” In fact, “August: Osage County” received $4.6 million of the total $5 million in rebates available in 2013—or 92% of the total subsidies available.
At least Weinstein’s film made it to real theaters. Other subsidized movies never reach wide release. Taxpayers wind up subsidizing unheard of films by local filmmakers who almost certainly would shoot here anyway.
One of these is "Pax Masculina," a 42-minute, straight-to-video film about scantily-clad female “freedom fighters.” Oklahoma Film and Music Office Director Tava Maloy Sofsky said she was “thrilled to have "Pax Masculina" utilize our rebate program…. We look forward to seeing this ‘steampunk’ spectacle come to life on-screen.”
Some films may also portray Oklahoma in a negative light, or graphically celebrate behavior that many Oklahomans find repugnant and destructive. By its own description (this is not on our watch list), "Pax Masculina’s" plot includes “Seduction and murder of policemen and government officials” and “televised executions of captured soldiers.”
A larger-budget film that did achieve wide release in theaters and was filmed in Oklahoma is "American Honey." According to IMDB, the movie includes a “disturbing” scene of sexual abuse and includes “strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse—all involving teens.”
Interestingly, while "American Honey" received the smaller sales tax exemption, a timing issue prevented it from benefiting from the rebate program. The movie was filmed in Oklahoma anyway.
Should Oklahomans have helped make Harvey Weinstein richer? What about subsidizing local filmmakers on projects almost no one will ever see? And should Oklahomans pay people to make movies normalizing, or even celebrating, anti-social behavior?
The current rebate allowed each year by state law is $4 million. That might not sound like a lot within state government, but it would be enough to prevent nursing homes from taking the provider rate cut currently threatened by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. In fact, the state could pay for nursing home care for 213 elderly Oklahomans every year, or for mental health services for 1,402 Oklahomans each year, with $4 million—but no, that money is earmarked as a handout for Hollywood.