By Jaimie Julia Winters
On any given day up to two films are shot in the hometown of the Montclair Film Festival. A bill encouraging production companies to film in New Jersey with new tax incentives could drive more production business to the garden state and give the festival more local films to feature in years to come.
It could also benefit the local economy as visiting film production companies and their employees spend money in downtowns.
Gov. Phil Murphy, who attended the MFF’s closing night screening of Don Argott’s “Believer” announced he would sign the law in the coming weeks to reinstate financial incentives to New Jersey’s film industry. The governor pointed out that Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce, who directed and produced “Believer,” had made “DeLorean,” starring Alec Baldwin, in New Jersey last fall.
“We have the artists,” Murphy said that night. “We have the art DNA. We have the film DNA. And so I will tell you, we’re committed, and I’m going to sign a law in the new few weeks that will give the financial incentives back to make movies again in New Jersey.”
Last week, the governor conditionally vetoed the bill, stating he wanted to add incentives for diverse hiring and opening up the tax incentives to unscripted shows.
Beginning in 2005, production companies choosing to film in New Jersey received 20 percent tax credit. But Gov. Chris Christie failed to re-institute that tax in 2015, a move critics said drove business out of New Jersey and into states with filming incentives. Shows such as “Law & Order: SVU” and “Boardwalk Empire” moved to New York for the tax credits offered there.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who sponsored the legislation, said bringing the tax incentives back will create jobs, spur economic activity and bolster the state’s cultural identity.
New Jersey location choices
Steve McCarthy, documentary maker and Montclair State University professor in the School of Communication and Media, said tax incentives are a big factor when scouting film locations. When choosing a location for “Survivorman,” his company looked at Louisiana and Toronto, both of which have film tax credits.
“We spent $145,000 on the film, but got $25,000 back. That’s a lot of money,” McCarthy said.
Toronto, where they finally wound up, also got their business with hotel rentals, food, car rentals and what ever else the film crews wanted or needed. Toronto also got sales tax, he said.
Under the bill, eligible film productions could receive a 30 percent tax credit against their corporation business tax or gross income tax liabilities, or 35 percent if their business is in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Mercer or Salem counties. Digital productions could receive a 20 percent tax credit or 25 percent if their business is in one of those counties. Companies would have to do at least 60 percent of their production or spend $1 million in New Jersey, with a $10 million cap per company. Film projects have to be at least 22 minutes long to qualify for the tax credit, according to Weinberg’s office.
Higher tax credits were given to South Jersey counties to drive more film production there, said Weinberg’s legislative director Shane Mitchell.
From the streets of Newark, the beaches of Long Beach Island, the farmlands in southern Jersey, to the mountains in Ramapo, New Jersey offers a diverse backdrop for filmmakers. New Jersey could also be a more affordable choice compared to New York, McCarthy said.
In need of studio space
Montclair Film Festival Director Tom Hall said tax incentives would go a long way in drawing production business, fostering local artists and drawing tourism to New Jersey. He pointed to Atlanta, where “The Walking Dead” and at least 360 other shows a year are shot and produced. Georgia is a now the mecca for film production, and the industry made a $9.5 billion economic impact in 2017, employing more than 43,000.
It not only has the tax incentives, but investors have put money into studio and set infrastructure building. Larger studios in Brooklyn and Queens are proving profitable as well, he said. But if New Jersey can offer studio space and is competitive in permitting and more economical to the producer, Hall sees the production industry taking off here.
“Having sets and studio space for films to build sets and TV shows can call home is something New Jersey will have to catch up on,” said Hall.
Another bonus, he said, would be that the Montclair Film Festival would welcome more films created locally.
NOW FILMING IN Montclair
In 2014, before New Jersey’s film credits lapsed Montclair hosted 93 film projects over 129 days.
Since the tax incentives ceased, those numbers have fallen slightly. The town hosted 85 filming projects over 141 days of filming in 2016. Last year, 74 filming projects took place here over 110 days of filming.
Thus far in 2018, the township has reported 30 projects totaling 55 days of filming.
Most are commercials, but in 2017, there were two student films, and 12 short film/TV show projects. So far in 2018, one student film and five TV show projects have been shot in Montclair, according to Holly Maykow, Montclair’s Records, Licensing, and Data Coordinator.
Montclair charges a basic $150 filming permit fee, and $500 for an expedited permit. In addition, a daily filming fee of $600 is charged per a day. For major motion pictures and recurrent weekly television series, the filming fee is $1,500 per day. Non-profits are charged a flat fee of $25.
The town takes in about $100,000 a year from film companies—$123,000 in 2016, $98,220 last year and $46,275 to date for 2018.
But, another benefit could be felt by the 14,000 New Jersey residents that work in the production field and commute to New York every day.
“Thousands of union members employed in the film and television industry work in New Jersey and this is the incentive program they have been hoping for,” said David Smith, Vice Chairman of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission. “It allows them to work in their home state.”