To spur diversity, NJ builds on film tax credits with bonus incentives

Major film production locations typically include Hollywood and New York City, and the major leading roles have typically been played by white, male actors. But according to New Jersey leaders, that’s about to change.

“We are getting a lot of interest because of these tax credits. Because of the tax credit, a lot of folks are even more interested than they already have been,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

It’s all thanks to the revival of the New Jersey Film Tax Credit. It went dark during the Christie administration, enduring several strokes of the veto pen. Gov. Phil Murphy reinstated a new five-year $75 million program last year. Industry leaders say it’s booming with a new element: a tax credit to incentivize diversity.

“The Murphy administration is taking the lead in encouraging businesses to grow here. While we do that, we must encourage businesses to reflect who we are,” said First Lady Tammy Murphy.

It’s being touted at the state’s first-ever Diversity in Film Forum and is being held in Newark. The program would offer production companies a 30 percent transferable tax credit if they work in North Jersey and a 35 percent credit if they use South Jersey locations. Companies can get a 2 percent bonus for meeting the diversity standard — employing at least 15 percent women and other minority groups in key creative positions and as members of their production crew.

“We are all about making sure that the status quo now represents all of us,” said Hester Agudosi, chief diversity officer for the State Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“What this obviously does is help to ignite, not only just film in the city of Newark, but a lot of young, black, and brown, and minorities in the city who are striving to be in the film industry. Who are working hard and may not be have the opportunity to break in as everybody else does,” Baraka said.

Industry insiders from Sony, Paramount and NBC Universal, to name a few, lead the forum panel, pointing to blockbusters like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians for pushing boundaries with diverse casts.

“We want to tell great stories and do great business. And part of great storytelling is having storytelling that has emotional resonance, and emotional resonance comes from authenticity, and authenticity comes from actual experience,” said Sony Pictures Entertainment Senior Vice President of Scripted Programming Jennifer Turner.

Critics argue the benefits may not outweigh the cost. A report from the state Office of Legislative Services show indirect state and local revenue gain was “indeterminate” with the tax credits. Still, with the lights back on, it seems the companies are knocking.

“We’re dealing with practically every major network, every major studio, not to mention a lot of independent production companies. So we have big budget productions all the way from $200 million-type movies, to features that are being done for $100,000, so the full gamut,” said Steve Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission.

More than a dozen productions are gearing up to start filming in the state over the next few months, according to the Economic Development Authority. The question is, how many more will take advantage of this diversity credit?

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