A recent trip to Turkey reminded me just how much our country’s image depends on the movies and TV shows we export.
Traveling by ferry out of Istanbul last month, I sat next to a young man -– a well-educated engineer — whose eyes lit up when he learned I was American. He hadn’t heard of Louisiana, but he knew all about Texas.
Thanks to American movies and TV shows, this man had an image of Texas as a place overrun with horses and outlaws. That, of course, isn’t the sum total of Texas, but it was for this man, whose only exposure to the state was through the images he had seen on television.
That got me thinking about the image that people around the country have of Louisiana and its people, by virtue of how we promote ourselves and by the many movies and television shows that are routinely filmed here.
The official image is produced by the Louisiana Department of Tourism, which pays millions for TV commercials featuring lovely images of bayous, jambalaya, and Cajun fiddlers.
There are others, including CMT’s “Bayou Billionaires,” A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” and “Billy the Exterminator,” and the Discovery Channel’s “Sons of Guns.” And then there’s a prison show on Animal Planet, set at Angola, called “Louisiana Lockdown.”
Too often, on some (but not all) of these shows, Louisiana citizens are portrayed as a bunch of gun-toting, toothless, tattooed swamp people who wrestle or kill alligators or eat squirrel brains for breakfast while celebrating our famously crooked politicians.
Speaking of politicians, there may soon be a show starring ex-con and former Governor Edwin Edwards and his wife, Trina.
Why all these shows? State officials say it’s partly because we’re an interesting place with year-round mild weather. But it’s also because the state awards a generous tax break to companies that make movies or TV shows here.
The official in charge of the tax credits for Louisiana Economic Development has said that less than 10 percent of the film credits have gone to the producers of these reality shows over the life of the tax credit. That may not sound like much, but last year that would be about $23 million.
[Today, after this post went up, LED officials did some recalculations. Chris Stelly, executive director of Louisiana Entertainment for Louisiana Economic Development, tells me in an email: “We had a chance to do some further research on this issue and we estimate that since 2002 (inception of the motion picture incentive program), reality productions have spent around $36 million directly in the state of Louisiana. Overall, since 2002, we estimate around $3 billion in direct, in-state expenditures for all film and TV productions. Accordingly, about 1% of the total film/TV production activity in Louisiana from 2002 through the present has been due to reality programming.”]
Costly or not, Louisiana is subsidizing these reality shows. And I believe they have a big impact on our reputation.
If you doubt me, consider this: How has the show “Jersey Shore” influenced your perception of the Garden State?
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says it’s been harmful – so harmful that last year he cancelled more than four hundred thousand dollars in tax credits for the show.
As Gov. Bobby Jindal and state lawmakers study the return on investment of hundreds of tax credits and exemptions – a process currently underway -– they ought to give special scrutiny to Louisiana’s film tax credit.
Here’s a suggestion for them: Just as the Pentagon’s Film Liaison Office approves scripts before giving filmmakers access to military facilities, perhaps Louisiana should vet the programs we support with our tax dollars.
State government certainly shouldn’t prevent TV producers from working in the state. But we shouldn’t routinely give away millions in tax credits to producers of so-called “reality” programs that merely distort or tarnish our image.
When it comes to the tax credit for shows that make us look silly or stupid, I say, “Choot ‘em!”
- New report says Lousiana film tax credits hurting state (wwltv.com)
- Swamp People, Gators and Catahoula? (maggiemoosetracks.wordpress.com)
- ‘Swamp People’ father and son pack out the Oyster House (al.com)
- History Channel’s ‘Swamp People’ Disgusts Dominic Monaghan (ecorazzi.com)
- Report suggests major changes to Louisiana’s film industry tax credits (ktbs.com)
- Louisiana film industry booming on 10-year anniversary of tax credit (wwltv.com)