Democracy is So Overrated: How House of Cards Fell Victim to Real-World Political Machinations
Back in the beginning of April the Maryland Legislative Session went down to the last minute while legislators sniped at each other on the floor over a single word in a bill they were trying to pass. The session ended with the bill unpassed, balloons and confetti floated down, and $3.5 million was lost over six people’s inability to agree on the word “shall” or “may.” You could say it was like something out of House of Cards. But you can’t say that, because the bill was concerned with exactly how much in tax breaks Maryland would be offering House of Cards for their upcoming season. The answer ended up being $3.5 million less than what the production company wanted. Now, dozens of Maryland residents wait with baited breath to see if the jobs they were counting on for the next 6 months will be walking away due to a fight over a single word.
This fight didn’t take place in a vacuum, though. The topic of film subsidies is one that goes back and forth pretty frequently, particularly in places where film is not a primary industry. Even with the stalled bill, House of Cards was still offered $15 million from the government of Maryland to film there. The debate that’s been raging through the statehouse the last few months has been whether or not the subsidies are worth it. It’s a difficult equation to parse, as you’re looking at a lump sum the government pays out versus dozens if not hundred of disparate areas of tax revenue coming back in. The film company does spend money in Maryland, but a lot of the people on set are from out of state which means they won’t necessarily owe income tax to Maryland. Some goods and services are purchased from Maryland-based companies, but not all, and while there are occasionally ancillary benefits in the form of tourism that is not going to be the case for House of Cards as they’ve got Baltimore subbing in for DC.
I can’t claim to be completely impartial here. As I’ve mentioned before, my mother worked on the second season of House of Cards and was looking forward to working for them again. $15 million for the third season is close to what Netflix had received before, given that they’d collected a combined $26.6 million for the previous two seasons. They wanted more. The Maryland legislature wanted to tie the increase to language explicitly permitting the state to seize a film company’s property if they fail to meet the requirements for the tax incentives they were given. Both sides are bringing a certain amount of stubbornness to the table, and the people likely to lose out are nowhere near the discussion.
But perhaps we should take a step back and examine the issue. What are the tax incentives being fought over? There are different ways film tax incentives can work. Sometimes they’re given out as vouchers to be redeemed when taxes are submitted, which film companies can then sell to other in-state businesses to get the cash up front. Other states, like Maryland, offer the money up front against anticipated future tax burdens. Filmmakers take these incentives into account when budgeting for a film, along with the money the studio or other investors put up. Sometimes money is also sought from foreign distribution companies or manufacturers interested in product placement, but it depends on the project. That money is then used to hire the talent, on-set workers, to pay rent on office and studio space, and to purchase any goods or services required to keep the whole operation running smoothly. Filming location can not only affect tax incentives, but also overall cost depending on whether or not the filming location is a right to work state and the local cost of labor. Almost all big name movie and television productions are union shops, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to every single worker on the set. All these factors are entered into spreadsheets, the numbers are crunched, and these kind of decisions tend to be made by accountants as much as artists.
For however we romanticize it, film is a business and like any other business there’s a lot of greed and self-interest involved in these kinds of decisions. The romantic thing to do would be to stay in Baltimore, a city that is at least close to Washington, D.C* and is somewhat familiar with film and TV production. All of The Wire was shot on location, as well as movies like Red Dragon, Sleepless in Seattle, and 12 Monkeys along with everything John Waters has made. To stand by their city, through thick and thin, and show that they are deserving of those higher tax breaks they campaigned for because of what they bring to Maryland, that would be the romantic thing to do. Perhaps even the cinematic thing to do. But film is not romantic. There are offers from other states on the table, and the word has not come down yet. There may be a great many people in Maryland who end up missing out on a job they needed in the coming months. There may be many people in another state who don’t end up with the job they desperately hoped would come through. The only thing that is certain is that House of Cards will go on, the actions of six people and the difference of one word are not enough to stop that, no matter what Frank Underwood might like you to believe.
*Washington, D.C itself is notoriously difficult to film in. Probably 95% of the time you see a show or movie set in “Washington, D.C” it’s not actually anywhere near it. As someone who now works in D.C, I find the substitutions a fantastic source of amusement.