The Hobbit Took $120M From Kiwi Taxpayers - Maybe They Should Own The Rights

from the we-wants-it-back dept

Yesterday, we wrote about how US taxpayers were handing over approximately $1.5 billion to Hollywood to get them to film movies in certain locations -- and how little of that money actually generated jobs (though, lots of it flowed into the pockets of Hollywood studio execs). Even worse, the story highlighted how there's a nasty "race to the bottom," where Hollywood demands increasing subsidies from different locations, with promises to only film movies in the locations with those subsidies. That means more and more taxpayer money going to Hollywood, for the sake of a temporary production, which often brings in workers from LA, and has only a brief, marginal impact on the local economy -- usually much, much less than the subsidy in question.

While the NY Times article explored how this was happening in the US, a new article at Bloomberg highlights how this is happening around the globe, using key examples from the subsidies around The Hobbit and Harry Potter -- both of which involved massive subsidies in response to Hollywood threats to film elsewhere.
How much taxpayer money can Warner Bros. demand from the government of New Zealand to keep production there (rather than, say, in Australia or the Czech Republic)? That answer turns out to be about $120 million, plus the revision of New Zealand's labor laws to forbid collective bargaining among film-production contractors, plus the passage of three-strikes Internet-disconnection laws for online copyright infringement, plus enthusiastic and, it turns out, illegal cooperation in the shutdown of the pirate-friendly digital storage site Megaupload and the arrest of its owner, Kim Dotcom.

[...] The U.K. government found this out in 2005, when Warner Bros. threatened to move "Harry Potter" productions to the Czech Republic. The government of Gordon Brown caved in to studio demands and passed new subsidies. In 2009, New Zealand also gave in and now faces demands for more.
Again, if this actually created the economic activity that Hollywood claims it does, perhaps it would be worth it. But both articles highlight how this isn't true at all. It just shifts money from local taxpayers to Hollywood execs.
The worst part is that, for most of the wannabe Hollywoods, it's bad economic policy on every level. The productions bring in mostly low-end, temporary jobs, while the high-end jobs remain in Hollywood or New York. Call it the Curse of Harry Potter.
That article, authored by Joe Karaganis, who has been studying this issue for quite some time, suggests that if the public is financing these movies, then perhaps the movies should belong to the public if the studios can't pay back the loans. The suggestion is a really creative one. If the movie actually makes money, then the studios can pay back the loans. If it's a flop, then let the movie go to the public via a Creative Commons license, and let the public do something with it.
One way to break the curse is to route public money through what we might call an Expecto Patronum license -- named after the powerful defensive charm in the Potter series. Under the license, public money takes the form of a conditional loan rather than a grant or tax break. After five years, producers have a choice: Pay back the loan or re-release the film under a Creative Commons attribution license, which would allow it to be shown freely.

If a film is among the few that have longer-term commercial value, its producers can choose the first path. If it isn't, they lose nothing by taking the second route. The license thus underwrites creative risk-taking without squandering public money on blockbusters. It also ensures that public investment generates public culture -- not works controlled by the studios for the next 95 years.
It's such a reasonable idea that you know that Hollywood would freak out at any legitimate push to use it. In true "entitlement mentality," they believe such taxpayer-funded subsidies are their right, and that localities that won't pay up are missing out. Yet, as the data clearly shows, most locations would be much better off saying "no," as the benefit is minimal. Or, at the very least, they should make the terms similar to what the article suggests. If you want the public to finance the movie, then make it conditional. In the end, you pay back the loan or the public gets the movie.

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  1. icon
    Prashanth (profile), 5 Dec 2012 @ 11:54am

    An idea for taxpayer-funded movies

    I have an idea: if a movie takes some amount of taxpayer money (either any, or above some threshold value or percentage) to be made, why not call it a government work and declare its copyright null and void, just like other government works?

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