State's film community in a panic

Sylvia Jefferies talks with Governor Mark Sanford on the USS Yorktown after signing a law that gives tax breaks to production companies that film movies, television and commercials in South Carolina.

South Carolina's film industry recently received a double dose of bad news: Some lawmakers want to trim its incentives back to less-competitive levels, while the agency that oversees its operations axed the man in charge.

Those decisions touched off a panic within the film community, as union members and industry supporters circulated e-mails urging people to write to Columbia officials for help. The loudest voices in Charleston, perhaps, came from the set of the Lifetime drama "Army Wives," now filming its fourth season locally.

Bruce Williamson, who worked landscaping for the series this week, said the crew fears the fallout from cuts to the rebates used to lure movie makers to South Carolina.

"Everyone is worried we're going to end up losing 'Army Wives,' and no other project is coming this way," he said.

"Army Wives" officials did not respond to repeated attempts for comments.

Williamson, who lobbied for the enhanced incentives passed in 2005, described himself as "just a struggling actor working mainly in North Carolina and Georgia, never having worked in South Carolina, to all of a sudden, I'm working on all these different projects."

He said rebates -- 20 percent for South Carolina residents' wages and 30 percent for supplies purchased from in-state businesses -- brought enough films here to give him full-time work. And it means everyone from rental companies to water bottlers, catering, supply stores and local restaurants reap the benefits.

The Senate approved a change to the budget that directs the state Revenue Department to transfer $1.5 million previously set aside for wage rebates to the South Carolina Conservation Bank. The Senate gave the go-ahead to reel back the S.C. Film Commission's incentives 15 percent for both wages and supplies.

Sen. Chip Campsen, an Isle of Palms Republican, said the kickbacks approved in 2005 modified permanent law that set the rebates at 15 percent each for wages and supplies -- and therefore violated lawmaking rules.

"A prudent legislator is looking for money and keeps an eye on what's going on," he said.

The House could return the funding to the budget, but the Senate's gesture coincides with the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism staff reductions that included Film Commissioner Jeff Monks. PRT officials declined to comment on specific personnel laid off, but sources within the film industry confirmed that Monks numbered among the 19 jobs cut from the 92 workers in the Columbia office.

Ken French, one of the founders of the Carolina Film Alliance, said if the Senate changes become law, they will put South Carolina among the lower one-third of incentives packages across the country.

"The film industry outside of California is incentive-driven," French said.

North Carolina, for instance, offers a 25 percent tax credit on in-state spending for goods and services. And Georgia offers a flat tax credit of 20 percent, plus an additional 10 percent by including a Georgia logo in the finished product.

Some states offer even more.

An unanswered question, though, is just how much film incentives help South Carolina. Two studies drew very different conclusions.

One camp contends the state gets back only 19 cents for every dollar spent in incentives, based on a College of Charleston analysis. Another camp aligns with a University of South Carolina report that found every dollar in supply rebates generates $3.68.

Patrick Bryant, managing partner of Mount Pleasant video production company Go To Team, said he wants to see staff in the film office and rebates that compete with other states, "especially those that are neighboring states that look like us."

"We're based in South Carolina, and we love it when we can work at home," Bryant said. But for now his company produces most of its video in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

Reach Allyson Bird at abird@postandcourier.com or 937-5594.