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May 6, 2014
Shawn Hubler: Critics of film incentives focus on dollars and cents, not on fun and fame

Hollywood_sign.jpg(May 6 - By Shawn Hubler, Editorial Writer)

Last February, a movie producer scouted Anil Nayyar's convenience store in Sacramento. A couple of thrilling chats later, the Bonfare Market was a location in "Bad Grandpa," a big-screen comedy.

The news couldn't be advertised. Passers-by were going to be pranked, so Nayyar had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. When the cameras arrived, he had to watch from across the street while Johnny Knoxville, aka "Grandpa," pretended to be an old man trapped at Pump No. 1 in a Cadillac with an exploding air bag.

Receipts that day were normal, though the crew did buy some soda. Citywide - they also shot at Discovery Park and a few other locations - the economic impact consisted mainly of four nights for about 100 people at a local Hilton, plus about $3,500 in fees to cover such costs as park rangers and police, according to the Sacramento Film Commission.

For his day's trouble, Nayyar got a few hundred bucks, two autographed glossies of Knoxville and brief acknowledgment in the credits.

"It didn't help business and it didn't hurt business," Nayyar says a year later, laughing.

"But one benefit was that it was fun."

According to a study released last week by the state Legislative Analyst's Office, the same might be said for showbiz in general in California - that it's a merry whirl with less in it for the rest of us than we might expect.

The LAO analyzed the $100 million in annual film subsidies that California has offered since 2009 to qualifying film and TV productions. It expires in July 2017, and supporters are lobbying hard to expand and extend it.

Though backers say the state will lose one of its trademark industries if the subsidy goes by the wayside, the LAO found that California gets back only about 65 cents for every dollar it spends to hang onto the business.

Growth in TV and film production, the office noted, lags other economic sectors. The credited productions mostly benefit just Southern California. We could go broke trying to match the fat giveaways offered in such places as New York and Louisiana. And shouldn't California simply make it easier for everyone here to do business?

The arguments are good, but the subsidy almost certainly will be re-upped and possibly expanded, and not just because it's backed by powerful unions. Why? For a reason that almost never gets mentioned: Being around show business is fun. And that is a benefit.

Analyses of film tax credits always manage to leave out the fun factor, as if our every decision should - and does - begin and end with pure dollars and sense.

But there's more to life than accounting. If there weren't, cities wouldn't want new sports arenas.

Even in jaded L.A., everyone knows that having a movie or TV series come to a town is less like landing a factory or convention than like hosting a circus. Sometimes there's an economic bump, sometimes there's just mess and commotion, but either way, money isn't all there is to the equation.

Big truckloads of cool and unusual people arrive on your street and do something creative, and everyone is more interesting for it. Film is part of what makes this place California, no?

Is that worth the $400 million worth of film credits being discussed? Probably not, but it's clearly worth something, because just about no place makes the money it thinks it'll make on these incentives, and yet they are still being offered in 37 states.

The truth is, Hollywood is a shuck and jive, and yet we still love it. The other truth is some productions would leave without tax credits and some would stay here anyway. "Bad Grandpa" got no California credits, but that didn't stop it from filming about 20 percent of its scenes here.

North Carolina and Ohio, on the other hand, each spent more than a million dollars to lure parts of that production. Did they need to? Only to compete with star-struck states beyond California. Craig Van Gundy, the location manager and field producer, says that the production couldn't stay here in any case because it was a road movie that hinged on reaction shots of astonished bystanders, and Californians are generally hard to astonish.

Incentives have been pivotal in keeping some of the productions he's worked on in California, he says, but in this case California's program was irrelevant.

That's probably something to keep in mind as the proposals for expanded tax credits make their way through the Legislature. But so is this thought:

As little as the Bonfare got out of its 15 minutes of fame, Nayyar says he would volunteer again in a flash if Hollywood were to come knocking. To that end, he has painted the store's résumé right on its windows.

"Bad Grandpa Filmed Here," it says in big, colorful, super-fun letters. "This Spot."