The Ministry of Entertainment

Movie poster for Machete

Your tax dollars at work?

Many Texans might be surprised that a governor who so vehemently opposes “socialized medicine” enthusiastically supports state-funded entertainment. The Texas Governor’s office includes the Texas Film Commission that provides incentives for film, television, commercial, animation, and video game production. For example, the “Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program” offer companies payments equivalent to 5-15% their Texas expenditures. Production companies can also receive exemptions from state sales taxes as well as refund on hotel occupancy taxes and fuel taxes.

The perils of state-supported entertainment can be seen in a recent story in the Fort Worth Star Telegram (“Drama unfolds as violent Robert Rodriguez film seeks tax break from Texas“) that describe how some conservative commentaries have taken the state to task for providing tax breaks for the movie Machete (actually, no funds have been released yet).

The origins of this mess go back to 2007 when the  Texas legislature passed HB 1634. Perry happily signed that bill in June of 2007. That bill created the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program to provide grants to films, television programs, commercials, and video games that are produced in Texas. That bill also provided that funds may be denied in cases where: “inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion, as determined by the office [Texas Film Commission].” That’s pretty broad language.

In 2009 Rick Perry signed a revision the rules (HB 873) at an April 23 2009 ceremony at Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios (the studio responsible for Machete). At the ceremony, Perry boasted that the bill was “strengthening our state’s investment in a vital industry.”  And, according to Robert Rodriquez, the bill helped keep Machete and other studio productions in Texas.

The result of these bills is that the state of Texas will give tax dollars to private companies that produce entertainment that meets government approval. This is where privatization meet propaganda.

Texas Film Commission Logo

Apparently, the Texas legislature hasn’t learned anything about the controversies over the National Endowment of Arts funding of controversial artwork. Why would it be acceptable to subsidize the profitable arts (movie and television) if it is not acceptable to subsidize the less profitable arts?

It’s risky enough having a government agency giving out money to support certain industries because they might create jobs or attract other businesses. Now we have the government has extended its reach into the content of entertainment and it tells the story of Texas. Anyone who watched King of the Hill knows that you can spend years poking fun at every aspect of Texas life while creating a warm, positive portrait of our state.

Should government be attaching content standards to financial incentives? After all, the goal is to create jobs and bad movies probably produce about as many jobs a good movies. It is irritating to see your tax dollars going to support a movie you dislike. However, people have all kinds of objections to movies. We’re not going to please everyone– but we will be using everyone’s money.

Also, putting standards on movie subsidies leaves us with the question of who is in charge of the standards. Do we really want government agencies trying to determine the proper subsidize for irony and symbolism? Do we want to entrust political leaders with the authority to finance the construction or renovation of Texas images and legends? We’ve seen the controversies over textbooks over the years. Does anyone think it will be easier to get approval on movies? Whose version of the Alamo should we have given tax breaks to?
Alamo Movie Poster

Maybe, none of the above. Maybe all of the above.

Update:

The New York Times has a good story (“A State May Pay for a Movie, if It Likes Its Message“) that looks at the controversies surrounding incentives for moviemaking in Texas and other states.

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