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California is about to give Hollywood studios a lucrative tax deal during the writers’ strike

<i>Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Visitors pose for snapshots in front of the Hollywood sign as it is repainted in preparation for its 100th anniversary in 2023
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Visitors pose for snapshots in front of the Hollywood sign as it is repainted in preparation for its 100th anniversary in 2023

By Samantha Delouya, CNN

(CNN) — The state of California is about to give movie and TV studios a new lucrative tax perk.

A bill awaiting California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature would extend the state’s tax incentive program for film and TV productions for five years but with a key update: Studios with more tax credits than they can use will be able to exchange those credits for cash. The bill, part of the state’s overall budget plan, was passed by California legislators on Tuesday, and Newsom is expected to sign it on Friday.

The bill also mandates any production that receives the tax credit to comply with new on-set firearm safety protocols following the 2021 deadly shooting on the set of Alec Baldwin’s film “Rust,” and it implements requirements aiming to meet diversity hiring targets.

The new, refundable tax credits come as competition for film and TV production from other states and countries is on the rise. States like New York and Georgia are gaining share of the TV and film market, thanks to their own tax incentive programs, according to a 2021 report from FilmLA — a nonprofit organization that helps creators with production planning and film permitting.

The bill should be a boon for studios like Netflix. The streaming giant had not previously been able to take full advantage of the tax credit program since it uses a separate research and development incentive from California to significantly reduce its tax liability. In a 2020 SEC filing, Netflix said it had $250 million in California R&D tax credits — far more than it could use.

Disney and Comcast’s Universal Studios were the only two studios that benefited under California’s existing tax incentive program, due to their relatively larger tax bills from theme parks, according to Democratic assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, one of the bill’s sponsors. The new bill could benefit other studios that don’t have theme parks in the state, including Warner Bros, which is owned by CNN parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.

Firearm safety in focus after ‘Rust’ shooting

The bill’s safety measures require productions to employ an adviser to oversee production safety and complete detailed risk assessments. Studios must also establish training requirements and standards that focus on the safe handling of firearms. Many of these safety protocols were voluntary before the bill.

Dave Cortese, the Democratic state senator who introduced the safety protocols in the bill, said research for the legislation began soon after actor Baldwin fired a live round of ammunition from what he said he believed to be an unloaded prop gun during a film’s rehearsal. Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed.

“Conversations about this legislation started the week after the tragic loss of a cinematographer. Those negotiations have produced the nation’s first and best safety practices for California workers in the state’s vital motion picture industry,” Cortese said.

In addition to refundable tax credits and stricter safety standards, the bill establishes specific diversity requirements. Studios must submit data about the diversity of their workforce to qualify for the full credit. The bill also adds a new member to the state’s film commission with diversity, equity, and inclusion expertise.

A tense time for the industry

The tax perk for Hollywood comes amid ongoing tension between the industry’s workforce and the studios’ bosses. The Writers Guild of America, has been on strike since early May, halting the production of many shows. The association’s more than 11,000 members are fighting over substantial issues like pay, the number of writers staffed on any given project, and whether artificial intelligence can be used in writing material.

Actors may soon stage a work stoppage, as well. Members of the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, have voted to authorize a strike against the major studios if they cannot agree to the terms of a new contract. Similar to the WGA, the actors’ union has voiced similar concerns about pay and the use of AI.

Democratic lawmakers in California celebrated the bill. Carrillo said the plan was a “grand compromise,” and it would help protect jobs in the state.

“These are hundreds of thousands of jobs, most of which impact Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles. They’re good union jobs, they’re production jobs, they’re creative jobs,” she said.

However, the bill has attracted some criticism. Chris Hoene, the executive director of the California Budget & Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank that provides analysis on state budget issues intending to improve outcomes for low-income communities and people of color in the state, called it “bad policy.”

“Refundable tax credits were designed to help low-income households… so to take that refundability structure and apply it to a business tax credit, you would think there are some film companies that struggle to make ends meet and don’t make enough money to owe any taxes, but that’s not how it works,” he said.

Hoene called the new policy a “giveaway that doesn’t have any positive outcomes.”

The refundable credits are designed to help more than just the big studios, Carrillo said. Film and TV productions help support surrounding businesses in the area, including “small restaurants and catering services,” Carrillo said.

“It’s very important that California has a competitive advantage and ultimately keeps these jobs and productions in our state while other states continue to announce more incentives,” she added.

Still, Hoene argued that there were more effective ways to create well-paying jobs in California.

“If we wanted to take scarce state resources to help workers, we could do that in ways that could provide them with assistance directly, rather than giving it to large corporations who are already minimizing their tax bills in other ways,” he said.

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