How Breaking Bad Doesn’t Break the Bank
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television / Ursula Coyote
By Elyse Sara
Breaking Bad, AMC’s hit TV drama, is notable not just for its widespread acclaim, but also for its position on a short-list of television series taking advantage of state-offered tax incentives. The series shoots in New Mexico, where film and television productions are awarded a 25% tax credit; after four seasons, that is a significant savings for High Bridge, Gran Via & Sony Pictures, the production companies behind the series.
Tax incentives for film and television have increased dramatically in the past ten years. As of 2002, only five states offered incentives, and now more than 40 states have some sort of enticement program, all competing to lure Hollywood to their doorstep.
For film producers, it is often times a no-brainer to shoot in the state that offers the best package. Since most films can complete production within a couple months, the one-time fee of transporting a production to another state is worth the savings.
However, when producing a television series – with the possibility of running for a number of years – the choice to move production to another state becomes a much more complicated decision. Due to the long-term potential of a TV series, certain factors need to be seriously considered, such as crew, talent, locations and even the political climate.
In speaking with producers who have contemplated these issues, it is apparent that television can benefit greatly from tax incentives. Stewart Lyons, the Line Producer for Breaking Bad, has had a particularly positive experience. Lyons explains that the decision to shoot in New Mexico came about in 2006, when the state’s 25% tax credit was relatively new. The show’s production executive at the time wanted to take advantage of the credits and didn’t much consider the longevity of the series, since no one had high hopes for a show about cancer and meth. As luck would have it, both the show and its presence in New Mexico have both been a hit.
However, producing outside of Los Angeles or New York City has come with its fair share of challenges. One of the key issues, Lyons notes is “when we go season to season, the cost of storage and reconstructions have been a significant factor.” In some cases, the cost to strike and restore sets from one season to the next can be in the $300K-400K range, and that doesn’t even factor in storage costs.
In terms of the political climate, Lyons says that “the stability of the rebate is an issue going from season to season; there was a great deal concern when the shift went from a democrat to republican, but it was seamless as they kept the Film Commissioner on board.”
One aspect that has proven to be very rewarding for Lyons is working with local crew. Although New Mexico does not require productions to hire New Mexican crew, Breaking Bad has grown from 50% employment of local crew to 90%, with their entire grip, lighting, construction, transportation and prop departments consisting of New Mexican crew. Due to the long-running nature of a series, “you have the ability to start someone as an office PA, and then if they work out, move them up to an APOC (Assistant Production Office Coordinator) and finally to a POC (Production Office Coordinator). And, because we are able to offer five months of work for three years in a row, better people become available to us.”
In addition to the crew, a long-running series like Breaking Bad must develop a strong rapport with the community. Lyons said that they have returned to locations multiple times over the course of the series, and as such, they find it worth the expense to create more lucrative agreements with their locations. “This is not wasted money. To replace any factor that we would have burned by not making a good deal would not be worth it.”
Finally, talent is a huge consideration, and the question of whether or not they are willing to stay on location becomes crucial. Lyons remembers that “we ran into major concerns in the beginning with the actors, about them being away from home, but as time went on, and they were working four days on average per episode – which is not overwhelming – they were fine with the situation. They don’t live here; it’s easy to get a flight back to LA. And they really do embrace the idea of Albuquerque. “
Michelle Begnoche, the Communications Advisor for the Michigan Film Office, provides a unique perspective on this topic, having overseen ABC’s Detroit 1-8-7 and HBO’s hit drama Hung, both set in Michigan.
“Certainly with television – setting up for multiple seasons – the producers have to look closely at all factors: locations, crew, infrastructure and studios. But from the perspective of a film office, one of the great things about television is it’s more long-term work for our crew for multiple seasons.” While Michigan does not require outside productions to hire local crew, those that do are weighted more heavily in the application process. “Our crew really benefits from working alongside more experienced crew,” she notes.
While Michigan offered one of the most competitive tax incentives just a few years ago, they have significantly scaled back recently and now offer a 25-32% refund, depending on the type of expenditure. Begnoche mentions that “our office is now looking to restore our relationships, and we’re in a rebuilding phase in terms of letting folks know that we still have a competitive program.”
One state that has been experiencing a major boon is Connecticut, which offers a 30% tax credit. In speaking with a Producer from TBS’s Are We There Yet?, the decision to shoot in CT came when one of the show’s executives (who was considering shooting in Vancouver) was approached by Bruce Heller, the Executive VP of the Connecticut Film Center, who shed light on the multiple advantages of shooting in Stamford. The Producer found that it was easy to find crew being so close to NYC (Stamford is located just 30 miles outside of Manhattan). In fact, 70% of the crew was based in NYC. And, even some of the LA-based talent ended up buying property in Stamford.
There were a few hurdles, of course. For example, the unions have become more aggressive with television shows shooting in CT of late. Whereas a union crew member might be more likely to not report a quick film gig, they would most certainly report a long-running job that lasts a full season or longer. Another issue that arose with Are We There Yet? was finding adequate equipment vendors in CT. For a show shooting for 18 months, the gear needs were extensive – approximately $1M worth. To take advantage of the tax credit, the producers needed to buy all equipment within CT. After some nimble deal-making, the Producer worked out an agreement with a NYC-based vendor to sell to them through a vendor in CT.
Another aspect, unique to TV production – the show’s five month hiatus – could have been a big expense, considering that they had to strike their set after shooting the initial order of 10 episodes. During the break, Showtime’s The Big C took over their stage. Fortunately the Producer worked out a deal with the studio to reclaim the space if they got another pick-up from TBS, and that’s where they shot their subsequent order of ninety episodes.
While it’s clear that television comes with its own set of variables very different than film, it is also certain that TV can benefit as much – if not more – from the various programs available. It may take some more creative strategizing and aggressive negotiating, but more television productions should feel encouraged and incentivized.