There’s been a lot of chuckling on my Twitter feed this morning over the news that Charlie Goldstein, a senior vice president for Media Rights Capital, the studio that produces House of Cards, has written to the state of Maryland to say that the production needs more tax credits or it can’t stay in the state.
“In the meantime I wanted you to be aware that we are required to look at other states in which to film on the off chance that the legislation does not pass, or does not cover the amount of tax credits for which we would qualify,” the Washington Post’s (disclosure: my future employer) Jenna Johnson reports that Goldstein wrote in a letter to Gov. Martin O’Malley. “I am sure you can understand that we would not be responsible financiers and a successful production company if we did not have viable options available.”
One lawmaker told Johnson that: “We’re almost being held for ransom.”
But Goldstein probably is telling the truth about what he needs to do to keep House Of Cards on budget, at least to a certain extent. Production tax incentives have become so common that film and television projects may have their budgets written with the assumption that they’ll be able to take advantage of those benefits.
In Maryland, an episodic television program that completes at least half of its shooting in the state and that’s intended to be broadcast nationally can get a 27 percent refund of the taxes it would normally have to pay on everything it spends in categories ranging from crew salaries, to renting shooting locations, to fees paid to Maryland musicians and accountants. Salaries for stars are exempt from the credits: anyone who’s making over $500,000 is exempt from qualifying for the credits. And there aren’t an infinite number of credits available: instead, states set aside a pool of money, and projects have to apply for them. Maryland had $25 million in fiscal year 2014, a higher number lawmakers authorized specifically to accommodate House of Cards.
It’s easy to make fun of Goldstein for taking a page from the playbook of Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) the ruthless protagonist of the show he’s trying to keep on budget. But in an environment where almost every state has authorized some kind of tax incentive for film and television productions, it’s not exactly as if Goldstein is smothering a troublesome Gubernatorial candidate or shoving a reporter under the most readily available means of transportation. Instead, he’s operating in an economic environment that’s been set up to allow him to make a certain assumption about the budget of the show he’s got to get produced.
For viewers of the current bumper crop of television shows set in and around Washington, though, the House of Cards fight with Maryland is a good reminder of why those shows so often lack a certain attention to local detail.
The District of Columbia doesn’t offer tax incentives to film and television productions. And complex jurisdictional and permitting issues make it hard for crews to get even good establishing shots of landmarks like the Capitol Dome. As a result, none of the current crop of political hit shows films in the District itself. House of Cards and HBO’s Vice Presidential comedy Veep film in Maryland. Showtime’s CIA thriller Homeland shoots in Charlotte, North Carolina, and overseas — I once told Homeland showrunner Alex Gansa that if the show had staged a bombing in the actual Farragut Square, rather than the wide-open park that substituted for it, Homeland would have been able to claim a lot more casualties. FX’s period drama The Americans, which is set in the District and Washington suburbs, films in Brooklyn, where production of its first season was interrupted by Hurricane Sandy. Scandal mocks up its images of Washington, but films on the West Coast.
We could nitpick the failures of authenticity and continuity that result from these alternate locations just about forever. But arguing over a character’s commute or whether a show got a view from a bridge right doesn’t tend to be that meaningful. And the best film and television productions conjure not just other states, but other worlds, to life on sound stages.
But what does make me a little sad about how few film and TV productions make it into DC isn’t those sorts of details. Rather, it’s that so many of these shows end up feeling like the equivalent of shooting the Capitol Dome from across the river in Virginia, and failing to capture any of the details of life on the ground. They capture Washington as grand and remote, while losing any granular sense of the District as a place where things other than politics happen. Veep and The Americans are rare exceptions, shows that understand that a city full of politicians and civil servants also needs rock clubs, and travel agencies, and churches that people attend for the rather un-Frank-Underwood-like reason that they actually want to pray.
House of Cards tried to get a little local this season, with a story about Frank’s favorite barbecue joint getting franchised that echoes the expansion of Ben’s Chili Bowl into a phenomenon. But, like the rest of House of Cards, Freddy’s (Reg E. Cathey) place feels underpopulated: nobody but the Vice President, a sinister billionaire, and their affiliated political operatives ever really stops by. It has none of the bright lights and raucous vibe of the line forming in the alley outside of Ben’s. Instead, the restaurant exists in the same arid, half-lit emptiness as the rest of Frank’s life. Nobody can live on politics alone, not even politicians. It’s a shame that so many shows about Washington act as if they do.