Hawaii taxpayers have paid out nearly $117 million worth of tax credits over the past five years to movie and television studios as an incentive for filming in the islands.

But, exactly who cashed in on these lucrative credits — and how much they got — is secret.

The program, which has been in place since 2006, offers a 15 percent rebate on production costs for filming on Oahu, and 20 percent for the neighbor islands. Eligible costs include things like wages for the cast and crew, equipment rentals, lodging, transportation, location fees and airfare. The credits are refundable, meaning if a company’s credits exceed its tax liability, the state pays out the difference in cash up to an $8 million cap.

In exchange for that $117 million in credits, productions collectively generated $110 million in state tax revenues during the same five-year period, according to state officials.

Civil Beat sent a public records request to the Hawaii Film Office, seeking the names of recipients of the state’s so-called Motion Picture, Digital Media and Film Production Income Tax Credit in each of the last five years, including the dollar amount each received and the name of the qualifying production.

We got the following response from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, which oversees the film office: “We cannot divulge information on any individual taxpayer.”

In addition to keeping the credit amount under wraps, DBEDT said it cannot disclose how much individual productions spend in Hawaii. A department spokesman pointed to a 2006 opinion on the topic by the state’s Office of Information Practices, which administers Hawaii’s public records law.

That opinion concluded that a studio’s expenditures are “confidential business information” and that making the amounts public could dissuade potential projects:

“The total production expenditure amount, the Hawaii budget for the production, and similar pieces of information are confidential financial information and, thus, may be withheld because their disclosure would frustrate (the Hawaii Film Office’s) legitimate function of promoting the Hawaii film industry by dissuading potential producers from filming here.”

The film office said it could only release aggregate data on the credits and tax revenues generated by productions filmed in Hawaii.

Year Qualifying Expenditures State Tax Credits Paid Tax Revenue Generated
2007 $152.5 million $22.2 million $23.9 million
2008 $82.1 million $12.63 million $15.4 million
2009 $107.3 million $13.87 million $16.4 million
2010 $333.4 million $47.89 million $36.8 million
2011 $131.3 million $20.05 million $17.7 million

The film office’s website lists productions that have filmed in Hawaii, by year, which gives some clue as to which films may have received taxpayer-funded incentives.

Other States

Hawaii isn’t alone in its stance to keep individual credit information confidential.

Only a handful of states are transparent when it comes to film tax credits, according to Good Jobs First, which dubs itself as a policy resource center that promotes accountability in economic development.

Currently, 45 states and Puerto Rico offer incentives, including tax credits, rebates and exemptions. Good Jobs First honed in on 24 states, including Hawaii, that it says provides lucrative subsidies for film companies in its 2010 Show Us the Subsidies report.

The Washington, D.C.-based organization says only eight of the 24 states — or one-third — disclose information about recipients.

“Nearly all states now have film tax credits and other related financial incentives. In many states, these subsidies have become one of the costliest programs,” the report said. “Despite the costs, many states are not providing recipient disclosure information for these programs. Of the 24 film programs on our list, only eight are transparent: Alaska, Arizona, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.”

A recent Stateline article found that most of the films nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards received financial incentives, but only three states disclosed the amounts paid out to studios.

In Massachusetts, come May, the identity of film tax credit recipients and credit amounts on a per-project basis will become public, thanks to Massachusetts state Sen. Ben Downing, Stateline reported.

“As Downing sees it, states need to know exactly what they are getting for their money. Especially in these tight fiscal times, publishing the names and dollar amounts for each project will allow state budget writers to measure the impact of film credits, and allow them to compare the results with what they get from other economic development programs,” the story said.

The lack of transparency in Hawaii, and elsewhere, raises concern over whether the credit program is being abused or lends itself to fraud.

Donne Dawson, acting manager of the Hawaii Film Office, says the state thoroughly vets applicants.

“We take that responsibility very seriously especially given these credits are taxpayer-funded,” Dawson said in an email to Civil Beat. “We go through a very thorough review and vetting process to ensure the veracity of the qualified expenditures we certify. It’s important to note that the figures we certify are subject to audit by the state Department of Taxation and they are the final arbiter of the credit.”

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