How Chicago and the MPA Brought Productions Back to the U.S.

Pop! Six! Squish! Uh-uh! Cicero … Tax credits!

The 2002 film “Chicago” brought the stage musical and the song “Cell Block Tango” to the big screen.

It also helped revolutionize the industry. When the Rob Marshall-directed movie debuted to critical and commercial success, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley expressed dismay that it was shot in Toronto rather than in his city — shining a light on the reasons major motion pictures choose where to film.

After NAFTA was ratified in 1993 and came into force in 1994, Canada enacted tax incentives for productions on both the federal and provincial level.

“The tax incentive in Canada was reported on, and there was national press. It raised the question ‘How do we do this?’” Vans Stevenson of the Motion Picture Assn. tells Variety.

Stevenson has led the MPA’s state-government lobbying efforts since 1995, but Daley’s comments shifted his workflow.

“For the first couple of years, we didn’t even lobby,” he says. “All we did was provide information and guidance [to governors’ offices] on how to compete with Canada. All of a sudden, states recognized production incentives as a viable economic development tool, and we were off to the races.”

For example, in 2008, Georgia expanded its production credit to 20% for any company that spends $500,000 or more on production and post-production. Ten years later, Georgia has become one of the top three states that produce films in the U.S.

As the MPA continues to extend and enhance state incentive programs, some key collaborators come from labor unions including the Teamsters.

“In the mid-to-late ’90s, we [in New York] were massively hemorrhaging jobs to Canada,” says Tom O’Donnell, president of Teamsters Local 817 and outgoing director of Teamsters’ Motion Picture Division. But once N.Y.’s incentives program launched in 2004, “not only had we recovered all the jobs” lost, “we were greatly increasing the number of jobs compared to pre-2004. We’ve septupled the number of members we have. Before the tax credits, we had 350-400 people full and part-time [employed in film]. Now we have over 2,600.”

Stevenson shares stories of an antique shop in Michigan whose stock was bought out and a Vegas dry cleaners that upped revenue from $2,000 to $30,000 daily, thanks to productions in town.

And they’ve all got Roxie Hart to thank.

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