Will meager tax credits stunt moviemaking in Las Vegas?

The fifth Bourne film has been shooting locally.
Photo: Jon Estrada

After losing nearly all of its hard-won, $80-million tax-credit allotment to Tesla during last autumn’s special legislative session, the local film industry deserved a windfall—and got one over the past week. A fifth Bourne film began shooting on the Strip. Homegrown studio Lola Pictures represented Sin City at Sundance with its mostly home-shot Frank & Lola, which had its world premiere—the first of three screenings at the festival—on Wednesday.

And Clark County recently announced that in 2015, it issued 440 permits for movies, TV shows, commercials and other filmed content, breaking its own record for the third year in a row. The City of Las Vegas also had a blockbuster year, with 352 of its own. “It’s a good indicator of the health of the business,” says Eric Preiss, director of the Nevada Film Office, which promotes the state by enticing film projects here. “We’re excited to see the trend going up. This is a cyclical business.”

Among the productions filmed in Las Vegas last year were movies like the Oscar-nominated The Big Short and the forthcoming The Trust with local Nicolas Cage; game shows like Monopoly Millionaire’s Club; and reality-based TV programs like The Real World, the latter now having shot its third season in the Valley.

When production companies come to film in Las Vegas, it typically means opportunities for local businesses and professionals, from dry cleaners and makeup and hair stylists to caterers and aerial/drone photographers. According to Lola Pictures producer Chris Ramirez (formerly of film company Silver State Production Services), however, big-budget movies tend to favor their own crew members as opposed to contracting locals. What’s most beneficial to the industry and city are the smaller independent films.

“You can get more control, bring it to your town and make [Vegas] look like a real serious community and industry,” Ramirez says. But those movies often rely on the types of tax credits other states readily offer. New Mexico—which Preiss called Nevada’s biggest competitor outside of Hollywood, and which backdropped blockbuster film The Avengers and five seasons of Breaking Bad—has had much success with its 25-30 percent refundable tax credit, up to $50 million available each fiscal year. It generated $1.5 billion for New Mexico’s economy and employed nearly 16,000 people between 2010 and 2014, according to a state study. California, which offers 20-25 percent in tax credits (and various ancillary rebates), recently raised its yearly cap to $230 million in rebates, and it goes up another $100 million in 2019.

Local industry contractor JR Reid, who founded JR Lighting 25 years ago, says he flourished in 2014 and early 2015, when incentivized projects included a handful of feature films (including Frank & Lola, which boasted a purely local crew and employed Reid). After the tax-abatement approval, and in anticipation of the increased workload, Reid hired personnel and invested in new equipment. But then the credit package slipped away, and business fell from the heights of last year. He’s not despondent, though, as he predicts a “reasonable” 2016, which could see business from political TV ads, and he sees promise in the 2017 lawmaking session. “We’re hoping after the election’s over and we get back to the Legislature next year, we’ll see movement toward the incentives being funded again.”

Ramirez adds that the credits mean credibility, and compares September’s decision to that of the recent rate increase on solar-power customers—two growing industries in Nevada, still running the gauntlet.

“We’re not the only people looking at this” he says. “It’s national, even international. Investors and big companies and financiers—and back to the people on the ground—look at these decisions and wonder if they should plant a flag here. Once we renege on [tax incentives] … they don’t think we’re serious.”

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