The American film industry is criticizing the assault weapon ban in the state of New York; it sees the shooting of action films as being in danger. The pressure that the industry is gathering is symptomatic of the influence of lobby groups in U.S. politics. The battle for generous subsidies is being bitterly waged.
Friends of the absurd may take pleasure in this plot: Hollywood, notoriously arch-liberal, is suddenly criticizing the tightening of gun laws enacted in New York in January.
The reason for demanding amendments to the enforced prohibition of assault weapons and magazines with more than seven rounds is, however, less of an ideological about-face than a question of production practice. Many studios use modified weapons with high-capacity magazines in the filming of action films and series and now fear coming into conflict with the law when filming in New York.
A series of film industry representatives have now spoken up in The New York Times. They implore Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo to establish legal exceptions. “You’d hate to lose a $100 million picture because there was a scene in it that required automatic weapons, and we were unable to accommodate them,” a local representative of the local union of stage employees told the newspaper.
The low-key threat shows why the U.S.’ relationship with the film and television industry is less an absurd comedy than a serious business matter: With revenue of $646 billion in the U.S. in 2011, the film industry is an important economic sector whose representatives know how to use their influence masterfully.
Lobby with Special Requests
Anyone with the film industry on his side can count on substantial financial support during elections — not only Barack Obama, who was able to collect millions of dollars for his re-election, knows that, but also New Yorker Cuomo, who railroaded through the gun control bill after the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown: He is said to have ambitions for the presidency in 2016, and his supporters are also located in Hollywood.
It goes without saying that this election help is a matter of returning a favor: Hardly any other lobby group represents its interests more strongly in Washington. In 2012, the entertainment industry, including the TV, movie and music industries, spent a total of $117 million on lobby work in the U.S. The Motion Pictures Association of America alone employs 29 lobbyists to provide for the realization of its goals, among which are, for example, a tightening of copyright laws in the digital age.
The most prominent lobbyist is Chris Dodd, head of the Motion Pictures Association of America since 2011. The Democrat and former presidential candidate was a former U.S. senator for 30 years and is considered an intimate expert on the Washington power machine. He makes no secret about his own opportunities to influence: When Congress put the controversial anti-piracy laws SOPA and PIPA on ice in the beginning of 2012 after vehement public protest, he warned the representatives in a TV interview, “Don't ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don't pay any attention to me when my job is at stake.”
The money is, however, not only flowing in one direction. The industry receives generous financial support from the government in the meantime. The New York Times calculated that in the past year, the film industry received about $1.5 billion in subsidies.
The write-off opportunities for the production of films in the U.S. show how attentively the representatives in Washington listen to the whisperers: In 2004 a law was enacted making it possible for investors in small productions with a volume of less than $15 million to use their costs as a tax write-off. In 2008 Congress expanded the regulation to large productions, for which producers can now write off a total of up to $15 million — in the case of TV series, even per episode. In 2011 the law expired; in the framework of the agreement in the budget battle at the beginning of January there was suddenly an extension to the end of 2013.
The argument for such laws always is: If the domestic film industry does not find good conditions, it will need to migrate abroad. That is only part of the strategy; in the meantime, a bizarre subsidy competition for productions does prevail between U.S. states. Presently, 42 states offer tax relief programs to lure the movie and television industries — since 2005, the treasury has lost $3.5 billion.
Questionable Economic Benefit
Calculations, however, show that the profitability of the subsidies is debatable: In Michigan, for example, subsidies of $125 million in 2010 to 2011 stood in opposition to tax income from the movie industry of only $13.5 million. A significant increase of jobs in the industry could also not be registered there.
Yet hardly any politician dares to cross the film industry. At the beginning of April, the Republican governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, signed the so-called “Breaking Bad Bill” after a long hesitation: Anyone who shoots a movie or series — like the prize-winning drama “Breaking Bad” — can have up to 30 percent of his investment financed by the government.
The series about a drug-producing chemistry teacher has provided rising tourist interest in the city of Albuquerque.