A Georgia Town Basks in Bountiful Filming. The State Pays.

A Georgia Town Basks in Bountiful Filming. The State Pays.

It is no wonder that moviemakers saw potential in Thomasville, Ga., as a stand-in for Main Street U.S.A. Cobblestone streets and mom-and-pop stores speckle the downtown of this city of 18,000 that is caked in red clay soil and nestled among rolling hills.

Just as attractive to some of those producers are Georgia’s lavish filming incentives, which have made Thomasville a cost-effective place to make modest pictures with major stars. Dustin Hoffman came for the rom-com “Sam & Kate.” A children’s book adaptation, “The Tiger Rising,” brought Dennis Quaid and Queen Latifah to town.

But what is good on the ground for local economies — Thomasville says each of the six movies filmed there has provided an economic boost of about $1 million — can simultaneously be a drain on state coffers.

Some Georgia lawmakers wondered whether it might be wise to put some limits on an uncapped tax incentive program that has given billions of dollars to Hollywood studios, scrambling this week in hopes of passing a bill that would modify the program.

Stuffy meetings about abstract budget crunching can feel like distant concerns in Thomasville, a bastion for quail hunters that is much closer to Tallahassee, Fla., than to Atlanta. To residents, the evidence that the state’s film subsidies are a boon to business is as clear as day.

When “The Tiger Rising” became the first major movie to film in Thomasville in late 2019, the studio Thomasville Pictures wanted to make it apparent that productions would benefit local business owners. So it decided to slip $2 bills into its cash per diems.

The distinctive bills were presented as payment at Jonah’s Fish & Grits. Actors handed them across the counter at Grassroots Coffee. They were also laid down as tips at Liam’s, a local restaurant that fills up with crew members and celebrities alike.

Rhonda Foster, who owns and runs Liam’s with her family, estimates that the restaurant makes an additional $30,000 — enough to add a few full-time employees — whenever monthlong filming is underway. Machine Gun Kelly and his girlfriend, the actor Megan Fox, became regulars while he was working on “One Way.” During “Bandit,” so did Mel Gibson.

“Those of us that own businesses are more than happy to see them here,” Ms. Foster said.

But for all the extra revenue and civic pride generated in Thomasville and other municipalities in Georgia, many economists worry that the state is paying too high a price so locals can spot Mr. Quaid cruising by in a Jeep or Mr. Hoffman sipping his coffee.

Because municipalities seldom forgo tax revenue, they see only the benefits of the program. But the subsidy — studios can get up to 30 percent of their production costs back — is costly for the state, which is legally required to pass a balanced budget.

Between 2015 and 2022, Georgia paid out more than $5.2 billion in tax incentives for filming, according to data obtained by The New York Times. State estimates project that the program will cost Georgia another $2.5 billion altogether for 2023, 2024 and 2025.

J.C. Bradbury, an economics professor at Kennesaw State University who has studied the state’s program, estimated that the $800 million in tax credits Georgia handed out in 2018 cost each household $220. That fiscal year, the state planned to allocate less than $300 million from its general fund to its Department of Public Health.

“I would be happy driving a Ferrari,” Professor Bradbury said, “but I don’t buy a Ferrari because I’d rather have the other things that $500,000 could buy.”

Few can deny that Georgia’s spending has resulted in a formidable infrastructure to accommodate incoming productions. Dozens of states offer filming incentives, and some have struggled to train enough crew members and build enough soundstages to fully leverage the tax breaks. Not so in Georgia, which has for years been held up as a national success story.

Tyler Perry’s 330-acre studio complex stands tall in Atlanta, which has earned the nickname “Hollywood of the South”; nearby, the 32 stages at Trilith Studios are home to Marvel movies. On-location shoots are also thriving, whether for television shows like “The Walking Dead” (Senoia) and “Stranger Things” (Jackson) or films like “May December” (Savannah) and “The Color Purple” (Macon).

Thomasville Pictures was founded in 2016 by Ryan Smith and Allen Cheney, a fourth-generation Thomasvillian who had moved to Los Angeles to begin his producing career. Their vision to film in southern Georgia overlapped with the goals of Bonnie Hayes, who was then Thomasville’s tourism director.

Ms. Hayes had hosted a local-interest television show for years before teaching broadcasting to high schoolers. Her students, she found, had no local outlet for pursuing passions like film after graduating.

“I would like for South Georgia to get a piece of that big money pie, to employ some of these really great creative kids,” said Ms. Hayes, who became Thomas County’s first film liaison.

Business owners said no when Marvel Studios asked to film a project that would close downtown for more than a month, Ms. Hayes said. But Thomasville’s small-town charm has come through since.

For “Bandit,” a closed restaurant became a strip club, and a member of a car club helped secure a few dozen 1980s vehicles. When one film wanted to use a specific house, Ms. Hayes persuaded the member of her church who lived there to allow it.

The films that Thomasville Pictures has brought to the city were not box-office bonanzas, making a combined $1.7 million from ticket sales. But they brought an infusion of cash and jobs to the region, which supporters of the film tax incentives say shows that the program is working as intended.

One recent report commissioned by the Georgia Screen Entertainment Coalition, an advocacy group for studios and their industry partners in the state, found that every dollar Georgia spends on film tax incentives generated $6.30 in value to the state economy. The same report found that the tax credit supported more than 59,000 jobs in 2022.

In a statewide online survey of likely voters conducted this month for the coalition, roughly two-thirds of the respondents said they were aware of the state’s film credit program and supported it.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Cheney say the response has been overwhelmingly positive when they talk to Thomasville business owners after each film.

“I didn’t want to just steamroll through it, use and abuse all the elements that we could and then head out, like some people might if they were just coming in to save money and they have no loyalty to an area,” Mr. Cheney said.

Economists not connected to the film industry say the big picture is more complicated.

“The argument against film subsidies isn’t that no one benefits,” Prof. Bradbury said. “There are clearly winners and losers, and if you are one of the winners, you’re obviously going to like them.”

As lawmakers tried to hammer out a compromise this week, they effectively gutted the cap proposal by carving out an exemption for productions shot inside Georgia’s biggest studios. A last-ditch effort to revive the plan died on Thursday, the last day of the session.

In Thomasville, not all business owners are sanguine about the filming that has arrived. Heather Abbott recalled how the actress Anne Heche bought several items, including a $300 purse, from her jewelry and leather goods store when Heche was filming “Supercell.”

Not long after Ms. Heche, who died in 2022, hopped on her bike and pedaled off, Ms. Abbott weighed the cost of that economic engine. She said that when filming shuts down access to her store for a month, she loses about $2,000, and that a crew once taped over her windows without asking permission.

“Let’s get real, that tax credit is for a rich person,” Ms. Abbott said. “They are trying to offset their income by impeding on mine.”

Mr. Smith said that Thomasville Pictures had received $6 million in state tax credits for five of its films, and that the studio hoped to make three movies in the area this year.

It may yet get a little more help. The Georgia Regional Film and Entertainment Alliance, which represents smaller cities like Thomasville, has an idea: an additional 10 percent tax credit for all productions that film outside metro Atlanta.

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