Why States Have Spent Billions Subsidizing Hollywood

State governments use our tax dollars to build roads, fund schools and provide health care. In 38 states, they also ship money off to a high-gloss private industry: Hollywood.

And it’s a lot of money. My colleague Christopher Kuo and I found that those states had given out more than $25 billion over the past two decades to subsidize the making of movies and television. The idea is to lure businesses to spend money, employ locals and stimulate the economy.

The problem is, the programs are actually huge money losers for states. Studies show that these efforts typically return a quarter or even a dime on every dollar given to studios.

Yet lawmakers are not slowing their spending. Quite the opposite. Hollywood is playing states off one another, and the competition has them sweetening their deals to lure productions, economists say. Under mounting pressure from New Jersey, New York recently expanded its film incentive program by 67 percent, to $700 million. Oklahoma went from $4 million to $30 million in just three years, in part to stay competitive with Texas. Then, Texas decided to spend nearly seven times that amount.

“You could find almost an unlimited number of better uses for the same dollars,” said Michael Thom, a tax expert at the University of Southern California. “Who on earth would say, ‘Keep giving the money to Hollywood; my kid’s school doesn’t need new books’?”

My colleagues and I wanted to understand why these programs persist. This morning, we published the third article in our series about the topic. Here’s a quick look at what we found.

States started supercharging their film incentive programs around the turn of the century. The idea is that when producers come to film in a state and spend money there, the government gives them back 20 to 30 percent of their costs as a thank-you for choosing that state.

Lawmakers say the film and TV shoots employ electricians, hair stylists and many other crew members. That means jobs. Money trickles through local economies to hotels, diners and dry cleaners. In Georgia, for example, the film industry says the state gets $6 or $7 in economic value for every dollar invested

My colleague Jonathan Abrams went to a small town in Georgia and saw some of the effects there firsthand. A restaurant owner said that sales spiked every time a production came to town. A woman who owns a jewelry and leather goods store once sold the actress Anne Heche a $300 purse. But even when a community enjoys visits from famous people and an infusion of cash, the state is paying to subsidize those benefits.

Of course, skeptical economic white papers can be no match for the allure of exclusive parties and the promise of a cameo in a blockbuster movie. Hollywood insiders lobby politicians with campaign donations and perks, which is another reason states keep expanding these programs. In Michigan, a big-name producer wined and dined lawmakers just as the state’s film incentives were set to expire. If you squint at the right scene from “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” you’ll spot a former Senate majority leader.

And states need to offer a good deal, or else productions will simply film elsewhere. Experts say this arms race helps explain why more and more public funds flow to these programs.

Remember the battle between Texas and Oklahoma? We document that in our latest piece. After Texas committed $200 million, Oklahoma began pushing to add many more millions to its own program. Dennis Quaid, a native Texan, has already plotted his home state’s next move: He wants it to approve $1 billion in the next budget.

Israel-Hamas War

  • The Israeli military said it had recovered the body of a hostage who was abducted from a kibbutz on Oct. 7 and held in Gaza.

  • A wild spinach-like plant has become a lifeline in Gaza at a time when most food is largely unavailable or expensive.

  • Protests over the Biden administration’s handling of the war have complicated the Democratic Party’s ability to campaign in an election year.

Can President Biden change the U.S. position on the war in Gaza?

No. Israel’s goals to remove Hamas from power align with Biden’s, and that means grievous harm to civilians. Despite his anger for Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden’s “regard for Israel runs deep in his emotional and political DNA,” Aaron David Miller writes for Times Opinion.

A traveling exhibit: See the work of women who made art in Japanese internment camps.

Style: Are you a “spring” or a “winter”? Seasonal color analysis, big in the ’80s, is making a comeback.

TikTok: The internet says “Oatzempic” — a blend of oatmeal, water and lime juice — is a weight-loss hack. Experts say there’s nothing magical about the mixture.

Superstitious: The coach of UConn’s men’s basketball team wears the same socks and underwear to every game, so he travels with a washing machine.

Vows: They kissed in the first 10 minutes.

Lives Lived: Kate Coleman was a left-wing writer who documented Bay Area counterculture in the 1960s and ’70s. She made enemies with exposés that were critical of the Black Panthers and the environmental movement. Coleman died at 81.

I’ll be part of a new Q. and A. franchise, The Interview, that’s starting in a few weeks. Before then I’m sharing some of my favorite past interviews. This one is with the great cartoonist and creativity educator Lynda Barry.

I know that you’ve done work on pairing Ph.D. students with kindergartners so that the children can help the graduate students with problem-solving. What does that look like in practice?

When I started teaching at the university [University of Wisconsin-Madison], I couldn’t understand why all the grad students were so miserable. Then I thought, it is this laser focus on getting one particular thing done. But the kids could shift the students’ perspectives in really helpful ways. And my students had to be on the floor with them working together. It’s hard to explain, but it changes you.

I’ll bet there’s a not insignificant number of people in the world — in my head, I picture some no-nonsense businessman — who think that playing around on the floor is not something for adults to be doing. Is there any way to persuade those people of the value of trying to access that childlike mind-set?

Why try?

Because those people run the world.

The reason they run the world is because of the way they were built. But it’s not going to help that person. Those guys, they don’t have a need. So there’s not a lot we can do, and that’s the hardest thing to accept.

You used the phrase “the way they were built.” When it comes to playfulness, can a person change how he or she is built?

Whatever man we’re imagining, if you hand them their 8-month-old grandson, that man will dance, sing, tell stories. We still all can communicate that way. There’s amnesia about the deepness of that interchange and amnesia about how when you’re making a story or making a painting it’s that same sort of interchange, and having that is what you’re born to do.

Read more of the interview here.

Times best sellers: Stephen Breyer, the former Supreme Court justice, shares some of his philosophies in “Reading the Constitution,” which enters the hardcover nonfiction list.

Fall in love with the pianist and vocalist Shirley Horn.

Make the perfect friendship bracelet.

Move your home office outside.

  • A total eclipse crosses over North America tomorrow.

  • Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, is expected to begin this week.

  • The House of Representatives is expected to deliver impeachment articles against the homeland security secretary on Wednesday. The Senate could quickly dismiss them.

  • South Korea will hold parliamentary elections on Wednesday.

  • Biden is hosting a leaders’ summit on Thursday with the prime minister of Japan and the president of the Philippines.

  • Coachella begins on Friday.

A spring-cleaning of your kitchen might mean clearing out condiments and jars from your fridge. In this week’s Five Weeknight Dishes newsletter, Genevieve Ko offers recipes to help you declutter. Add a spicy condiment to chicken or tahini to a spinach-and-cilantro soup.

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