Film production is already an incredibly complicated endeavor when shooting in one city or state. But what happens when a production decides to shoot in more than one state? The upside to a multi-state film shoot is that it offers unique opportunities to showcase diverse locations and wrangle multiple forms of budgetary incentives.
It also presents a range of challenges that filmmakers must face to ensure a smooth and successful production. But fear not! Here at Wrapbook, we’ve put together a guide through the most common struggles you’ll face: from navigating permit laws to payroll regulations and logistics.
One reason that most shoots don’t engage in multi-state film production is because filming in more than one state (or sometimes just more than one city!) means having to understand each state’s different laws regarding permits.
Each state will have different regulations regarding when and how paperwork has to be filed, which government agencies need to be informed, and how much these permits cost. You may find yourself having to hire different lawyers in each state to make sure that no mistakes are made.
To get you started, we’ve put together free handbooks that walk you through the permitting process in New York City and Los Angeles. But don’t feel this is something you have to handle all by yourself!
Permitting is a complicated and time-consuming endeavor - especially on a multi-state film shoot - and we would recommend hiring someone with the proper expertise in permitting to undertake the responsibility.
After all, no permits, no shoot - and that’s not a problem any producer wants to face.
On top of permitting concerns, each state has its own laws and regulations regarding payroll.
These rules can be complex enough to untangle in one state, so multi-state filming really ups the difficulty curve. However tricky it may be, it’s essential to follow employment laws and regulations to ensure fair treatment of workers and mitigate potential legal risks.
At Wrapbook, we’ve made it our mission to know a thing or two about payroll regulations. We recommend you start with our Payroll 101 article for an overview of the basics - but that won’t be enough if you’re planning on filming in multiple states.
Here’s everything you need to keep in mind:
Determining whether individuals working on the production should be classified as employees or independent contractors is of utmost importance. Each classification has different implications for taxes, benefits, and legal obligations.
Having an iron-clad understanding of the criteria used by each state to differentiate between employees and contractors is essential for proper classification.
Many film laborers used to be categorized as independent contractors. Recent changes in American tax law circa 1994 have since placed them into the freelance employee category. Due to these updates, jobs within the film/video industry generally fall into one of three categories.
Category One workers are responsible for guiding, planning, and implementation of the film or video production. Usually, these workers are the writers, producers, and director(s) of the film and are likely to be independent contractors.
Category Two workers plan, design, or implement key technical aspects of the production. These workers can be camera-people, sound engineers, scenic artists, production designers, lighting directors, gaffers, and key grips. Many factors go into determining whether these roles should be categorized as independent contractors or employees, so it’s best to check with a professional.
Category Three workers are usually classified as employees because they operate the most as pure labor, with little or no control of the production or significant aspects of it. These roles can include camera operators, dolly grips, electrics, grips, and production assistants.
Again, before making any decisions, we encourage you to consult with a payroll professional to make sure all your workers are being classified properly. This is especially tricky in multi-state filming. Local laws may mandate a different classification for a worker in Minnesota than in Maine.
While everyone wants to make sure your film is the best it can be, overtime laws exist for a reason. It’s too easy to get caught up in the excitement of filmmaking and push a crew into working hours that are not safe or healthy.
Your crew will expect you to know these laws inside and out, and going into overtime will cost you. One of the many tricky parts of filming in multiple states is making sure your producers and assistant directors have plans in place to follow each state’s individual overtime laws.
There’s nothing wrong with going into overtime if it’s budgeted and necessary, but no one wants to discover they went into OT at 8 hours instead of 12 because they were using the previous state’s overtime guidelines.
In some states, these laws also include guidelines for how often a production must break for a meal as well as how long those meals must be.
Not only does each state have different laws around overtime and employee/contractor classifications; they also have their own laws regarding paychecks. These regulations dictate minimum wage requirements, pay frequency, and deductions from employee wages.
We’ve published a guide to paycheck laws to get you on your feet, but be aware: complying with paycheck laws on a multi-state film shoot is a grueling undertaking.
Not only will you need to make sure your budget can handle the differences in minimum wages state-to-state, but you’ll also need to make sure your liquid cash flow is extremely well managed.
Because as you travel, you may find yourself having to cut paychecks to your crew more frequently. For instance, if you’re traveling from a state like Delaware (which only requires paychecks once a month) to a state that requires bi-weekly paychecks, you’re going to need to have payroll on hand twice as often.
On top of that, each state has different laws regarding final paychecks. Do you have to pay out your labor on their last day of work? Or do you have a few days or weeks to get them that last check? Multi-state filming requires juggling different answers as you travel from state to state, possibly resulting in overlapping pay periods.
Even with the information we can provide, we still recommend hiring a payroll professional to guarantee that all your “I”s are dotted and all your “T”s are crossed. Making payroll mistakes can result in stiff penalties and fines that can sap your budget - not to mention sully your multi-state film production’s reputation.
As if multi-state filming needed any more complications, you still need to figure out the logistics, legalities, and costs of transportation and lodging.
The first math you’ll want to check is what percentage of your multi-state film incentives will be eaten up by the costs of transporting your cast and crew. Whether it’s by plane, train, bus, or car, ask yourself if it’s worth the challenge and cost or if you’ll just be breaking even.
The same goes for housing logistics. If you’re shooting in the same city or state for the duration, you may be able to negotiate more favorable lodging rates than if you’re at a new hotel every few weeks.
Some of these costs can be off-set by hiring local crews in each state. In fact, many tax incentives require you to hire a certain percentage of local crew in order to qualify.
That said, hiring different crews in each state is still a challenge. Rotating crews may not develop the same kind of shorthand that one single crew working together for weeks in the same state might develop. Not to mention keeping everyone’s payroll paperwork straight!
If the math makes sense and you plan on filming in more than one state, you or your production team has one last set of hurdles to be aware of: labor and safety regulations surrounding travel and lodging. Each state is likely to have its own vehicle inspections, driving permits, and occupancy limits on hotel rooms.
With all these rules and regulations to watch out for, you might be wondering why anyone would ever want to produce a multi-state shoot. The answer is that many states offer different kinds of incentives to attract productions, which can significantly increase the scope and budget of your film (or unscripted production!) by funneling cash back to the screen.
A savvy producer might look at these financial incentives and see a way to supercharge their budget by putting up a multi-state film shoot.
Tax credits are one of the most common incentives that states offer film productions to attract their business. These credits typically offer a percentage rebate on qualified production expenditures, including payroll, equipment rentals, and post-production costs. That money goes straight back into your budget.
Suddenly, that impossible car chase isn’t so far out of reach - or maybe you can afford that long shot cameo. If you score really big, your production could put millions more on screen with tax incentives than they could without. From that perspective, filming in multiple states is an attractive proposition.
But not all tax credits are the same. Their structure and benefits vary by state, and often by year. There are two main types of film tax incentives to be aware of: transferable and refundable.
A refundable tax credit is paid by the state directly to a production as a refund on qualified expenses, such as equipment rented in state. Productions can calculate the refund they’ll be receiving and safely increase their budget by that number, knowing the money will come back to them at the end of the shoot.
A transferable tax credit allows productions that generate more revenue than their tax liabilities to sell those credits to other productions, who will use them to pay down their own taxes in the same state. The price that those credits are sold for can then be folded back into your production’s budget.
Since many of these credits require your budget to be spent in state, it can make it tricky to stretch incentives when filming in multiple states.
Whether your spend is counted in wages or rentals, Pennsylvania won’t care how much you spent in New York and vice versa.
You may find yourself needing to hire separate crews and rent different equipment by state in order to take advantage of these credits - something that could ultimately drive your budget up.
We’ve put together a helpful guide to tax incentives by state for 2023 that will give you a much closer look at what each state offers or doesn’t. Each entry includes a breakdown of the state’s tax credit details and a link to the site where your production can apply.
Exemptions are waivers on certain taxes, like hotel occupancy tax or state sales tax.
While not as flashy as tax credits, these exemptions can make a huge difference to a production’s bottom line because of the scale of the numbers involved. For instance, if you’re putting up a crew of 250 at a local hotel for eight weeks, you won’t have to pay the taxes on each of those rooms. This could equal thousands of dollars in savings.
What’s more, the guidelines for these exemptions often aren’t as stringent regarding local spends. This makes them easier to take advantage of for multi-state filming.
Certain states offer grants to film productions to encourage economic development and job creation. These grants can provide funding for various aspects of production, including location scouting, equipment rentals, and post-production.
These grants tend to be less rich than tax credits - usually in the range of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars - and are often targeted at very specific criteria. For instance, the California Humanities Organization offers a documentary grant up to $50,000 for stories that “explore California in all its complexity and tell stories from every corner of the state.”
If you’re just looking to shoot Malibu for its scenery, this might not be the grant for you. But if your project requires multi-state filming to document the differences in the lives of professional surfers from California and Hawaii, it could be just what you’re looking for.
By doing some research and applying wisely, you might be able to use these state-specific grants to add to your savings on a multi-state film shoot.
In addition to these common financial incentives, states with cinematic landscapes and urban settings may offer location cost breaks. These breaks can include discounted fees for public property usage, access to unique locations, or reduced transportation and accommodation costs.
For instance, Pennsylvania offers some shoots the ability to use state-owned property for free (provided any insurance and costs-incurred are covered by the filmmakers.) This isn’t limited to state hospitals or government buildings, either. Pennsylvania has a wide variety of state owned properties, like Hartwood Acres in Pittsburgh.
States will often provide these cost breaks as an additional way of bringing film productions to their area. A smart producer and efficient planning could theoretically string together a multi-state film shoot that uses primarily cut-rate locations and rarely, if ever, pays for location access.
The only question would be whether or not the cost of multi-state filming would off-set the savings free locations could provide!
Filming in more than one state offers filmmakers access to diverse locations and the chance to multiply budgetary incentives. At first, multi-state filming seems like all upside, but upon further examination it presents numerous challenges that must be navigated effectively.
Producers filming in multiple states must understand the budgetary incentives available, as well as permit laws, payroll regulations, and logistics of moving cast and crew from state to state. For more tips on how to successfully manage payroll no matter how complicated the situation, check out our articles on how to run payroll for films or commercials.
At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.