Acton Institute Powerblog

Publicly Funded Films: A Cautionary Tale

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The most basic lesson of all of the various efforts, by both state and federal governments, to provide incentives for films to be made is that with government money comes government oversight.

Once you go down the road of filing for tax credits or government subsidy in various forms, and you depend on them to get your project made, you open yourself up to a host of regulatory, bureaucratic, and censorship issues. It shouldn’t be a surprise, for instance, that states might only want to reimburse those films that project an image of their state in a complimentary light.

The Michigan film bureaucracy has become infamous, selective, and capricious; you hear stories of corruption, by both government departments and those seeking the credits.

John Stossel examines some of the regulatory and economic issues surrounding film incentives.

Why not just have a free market for films? To do otherwise is to court government censorship or propaganda, neither of which should be an attractive option for filmmakers.

If you want to retain creative control and avoid the insidious influence of government oversight, then don’t take money from the government to make your “art.”

This is perhaps at its most compelling when you have Christians who are trying to genuinely trying to integrate an authentic sense of faith into their films.

Should the government be given a say, either directly or indirectly, in what such filmmaking looks like?

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Foreign countries heavily subsidize their film industries, and we’ve gotten some classic works of art from them. However, we’ve also gotten notorious censorship. Eisenstein and Buñuel each made great works that were kept from release for decades because their state donors didn’t like the political and anti-religious content. Tarkovsky had to excise blatantly Christian themes in some of his Soviet-funded work.

    China’s first attempt at a Hollywood-style blockbuster is underway, but the law there says ‘Empires of the Deep’ must promote Chinese culture. So the director wrote an irrelevant dragon scene that will only be released in the Chinese version.

  • Trevor Snarr

    Yes, government should have a say in what films they decide to invest in. Keep in my mind, they are part investor’s in the film. So I don’t see anything wrong with them deciding to approve or decline films that come to them requesting tax credits for producing the film in the chosen state.

    I have read that most films that have been declined are very few in comparison to films that have been accepted and awarded tax incentives.

  • My only issue with Stossel’s article is its headline. The article discussed States giving film projects tax breaks, not the federal government. Instead of “Is this “a wrap” for federally funded films?” it should have read, “Is this ‘a wrap’ for State funded films?”

    That being said: Absolutely not. States should not be forcing local residents to subsidize the Entertainment-Industrial Complex, when it wants to film in their locals. Articles have been written about how the tax breaks are used, not so much to hire local talent, but subsidize the lavish lifestyles of Hollywood A-List personnel. Quite simply: These projects don’t. Create. Jobs.

    Iowa’s Hollywood Welfare tax-credit program was so full of loopholes that a director used it buy himself a Mercedes. It was only after numerous abuses such as this that Iowa’s governor “temporarily suspended” it. He didn’t eliminate it, just suspended it.

    I’m distressed at the sanguine attitude expressed above concerning government censorship in the film industry. It is one thing for private investors to exert influence on a film project. If Robert Redford wants to dump millions into a project that portrays California as a socialist utopia, that’s his money and his business. When State governments do the same thing with my money, that is something else entirely. That some people don’t understand this tells me how far we’ve sunk culturally.