20 Dec All the Tender Sweetness of a Seasick Crocodile
Would you believe that Spotify offers over a million Christmas songs? There’s something for every taste. The best of them, like Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti’s magnificent “O Holy Night,” are sublime evocations that lift the human spirit. Some, like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” are banal background noise for department store Santas. And some, like Paul McCartney’s “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time,” are just a lump of coal in your stocking.
But there’s one holiday classic everyone loves, and that’s “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” We’re talking, of course, about Thurl Ravenscroft’s crypt-voiced rendition from the original 1966 animation. Fifty-three years later, the Grinch polls nearly as well as Santa Claus. And in Hollywood, where imitation is the most risk-averse form of flattery, that means cynical studio executives will churn out garbage remakes every few years until the day their hearts grow three sizes.
Remakes rarely delight critics and viewers the same way as the original. (The cover band at the country club Christmas party isn’t rockin’ around the Christmas tree quite like Brenda Lee, either.) But the 2000 live-action Grinch starring Jim Carrey grossed over $345 million. And last year’s animation with Benedict Cumberbatch cleared over half a billion. So it turns out the Scrooges at the IRS and various state tax departments don’t care which Grinch steals all those floo floopers and jing tinglers — they just want their share!
Fortunately, the tax code gives moviemakers a 39½-foot pole to keep the IRS at bay. From 2004 through 2016, Section 181 let you write off 100% of specified production costs, as soon as you incurred them, up to a cap of $15 million ($20 million in certain economically distressed areas). To qualify, you had to spend at least 75% of your production costs here in the U.S. The goal was to fight “runaway production,” where producers take everything else down to the last can of Who Hash abroad to film. And it worked, by helping domestic productions find financing.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 makes those same expenses, still called “Section 181 costs,” eligible for 100% bonus depreciation under Section 168(k). It also eliminates the previous $15 million cap. However, you can’t take your bigger write-off until the film is “placed in service,” meaning it’s actually released. And you may not get to write it off against your W2. At least the net income from moviemaking is eligible for the new Qualified Business Income deduction. (Even Little Cindy Lou Who knows that where Hollywood accounting is concerned, there’s never any “net.”)
Uncle Sam isn’t the only one who offers tax breaks for film producers. Many states offer incentives to lure productions to their jurisdictions like the Grinch lures his dog Max onto his sleigh. Louisiana has passed California as the most popular location for filming, thanks in part to the Bayou State’s generous 40% tax credit on expenses up to $180 million. New York is another film hotbed, with industry titans like Robert DeNiro investing $400 million in a Queens soundstage serving all phases of movie and TV production.
2019 is drawing to a close, and the holidays are here. It’s a special time of year, whichever holiday music brings you good cheer. And so, whether you’re celebrating from high atop Mt. Crumpet, or somewhere in the village down below, we wish you the very best of the season.