“Graceland” is a hold out in Florida’s crumbling TV industry

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When the USA series Graceland began filming in Fort Lauderdale two years ago, the Florida film business was booming. Fueled by a hefty $296 million in film and TV tax incentives that had been allocated in 2010, the state had attracted big projects like Rock of Ages and Dolphin Tale, as well as series like Graceland that couldn’t afford to film in California (even though the show is set there), which at the time had barebones subsidies.

Now, as Graceland kicks off its third season, which debuts Thursday on the USA network, it’s suddenly become one of the last productions standing in the state. Florida’s tax incentives had been expected to last through 2016, but funding has already run dry, and the state once known as “Hollywood East”—in the ’70s and ’80s, it often had the second busiest shooting schedule outside of California—is rapidly losing productions and crew members to other states with more generous subsidies like Louisiana and Georgia, and, ironically, California.

“There’s a huge migration towards Atlanta and New Orleans right now,” says Graceland co-executive producer Larry Teng. “But Florida production has gone down.”

And Florida isn’t the only state to watch its film and TV production disappear seemingly overnight once the incentives evaporate. Across the country, movies and TV series routinely pull up stakes and flock to whichever new state is offering the best terms to Hollywood productions—even though the incentive programs rarely seem to benefit those states in the long run.

Because it has been shooting in Florida for two years, Graceland has been grandfathered in and continues to qualify for rebates, says Teng, and that will continue if the show returns for another season. Especially on basic cable shows like Graceland that are trying to stretch every penny, the money saved by those incentives is essential.

“It’s always been a challenge on these cable shows because you’re dealing with budgets that are below $2.5 million an episode,” says Teng. “And you’re competing with House of Cards, which is over $6 [million], Game of Thrones, which is over $7 [million], and even a network show like Hawaii Five-O, they’re $3.7 or $4 million after their Hawaiian rebates. We’re about a $2.5 million show with Florida’s help. That pays for your cast, basically. So it’s a good luxury to have, and we’re happy to be here.”

While Florida is also home to two new big-budgeted, high-profile TV productions that didn’t need incentives relief—Netflix’s Bloodline and HBO’s Ballers—that’s still not enough shows to sustain the entire state’s TV and film economy. As Graceland tried to “open the show up a little bit” and searched for additional cameramen and stuntmen this season, says Teng, “it’s actually been hard to find people, because a lot of them have left Florida and gone to Atlanta and New Orleans. Our first-level crew is amazing, but when you need to bring in a third or fourth camera operator, the talent drops off a bit, because people have left.”

There’s no relief in sight for Florida, as efforts to pass a new tax incentives bill died earlier this month.

Meanwhile, California, the state responsible for sending so much production elsewhere, is finally wooing productions back after passing the California Film and TV Tax Credits program, which takes effect on July 1. The program, which expands annual funding from $100 million to $330 million, has already attracted shows like Veep (which is relocating from Maryland), American Horror Story (which filmed in Louisiana the past two years) and Secrets and Lies (which filmed last season in North Carolina).

One reason for the rapidly vanishing incentives: many argue that while the productions routinely benefit from the programs, the states themselves rarely do. According to The Los Angeles Times, a report for Louisiana’s office of economic development said its film incentives cost the state’s taxpayers almost $170 million in 2012, while the Massachusetts department of revenue estimated that for every dollar of film tax credits awarded from 2006 to 2011, the state got back only 13 cents in revenue.

The paltry returns have prompted states like Michigan, New Mexico and North Carolina to trim their respective programs. Just last Friday, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal signed a bill placing a $180 million cap on the motion picture tax credit, a bill the industry had lobbied against.

Those moves have sent shows and films scattering yet again as they search for a new incentive-friendly state to call home. “North Carolina didn’t pass theirs, and Sleepy Hollow went from Wilmington to Atlanta,” says Teng. “So you go where the programs are.” And then the cycle begins anew.

You can follow Jason on Twitter at @jasonlynch. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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