When most people think about production incentives, they think about TV and feature films. How Atlanta has become a center for production. Or noticing that a movie set in Los Angeles has clearly been shot in New Zealand.
But I’m here to tell you that they’re just as valuable for unscripted content. It just takes an understanding of the terrain. Let us help your documentaries, game shows, and reality productions get a little help from domestic production incentives.
Production incentives are unique to every location across the U.S. The first question you should ask yourself is, “Where are we going?!”
Are you chasing talent or a particular environment? Are you going where the network makes you go? Are you filming in your own back yard to save on cost? Where is your post going to happen?
Let these questions guide your destination first. A great tax break doesn’t help you if you're not filming in that location. Once you’ve narrowed down those necessary questions, you can actually look at the incentives.
Now that you know where you’re going, it’s time to determine if there are production incentives there and if you can take advantage of them. I’m happy to tell you that you there usually are incentives and you usually can qualify for them.
However, the incentives may not always be that easy. Since you may work closely with a network, there are things to be aware of, maybe some strings are attached.
The types of incentives vary. Typically you can spilt them into two camps: credits on one side and grants & rebates on the other.
Grants and rebates are often the most attractive because there are usually no tax documents to worry about. No selling of credits, offsetting liability, etc. Just a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
But as you may have guessed, that pot of gold is guarded. Grants and rebates are often approved on a case-by-case basis. Some of these film offices are picky about which projects get their money, and rightfully so since they may not have a whole lot of funding in the first place. (More on that later.)
So even though a state may technically allow for an unscripted project to qualify, that doesn’t mean that you will automatically get in. Other factors might enter the picture. Is there still money in their pot of funding? Are they holding out their money for something they think may have a larger economic impact in their area?
In that case, a first-come first-serve program may be better suited for unscripted projects. That way you just confirm that a) the state program accepts unscripted content, b) there is money left in the program, and finally c) you fulfill the minimum requirements the program has in place.
That brings us to credits.
While most grants and rebates are case by case, most credits are first-come first-serve.
There are a few exceptions. Kentucky and Ohio have credit programs that accept on a case-by-case basis, while Mississippi is a grant program on a first-come first-serve basis.
With first come first serve, you can assume so long as you get in “line” and apply on time, you can bank on a win!
That doesn’t mean it’s all simple and straightforward, however.
You need to determine if the production company (you) is applying for the incentive directly, or is the network fulfilling all the application requirements? This will matter in who applies. In some cases it will affect who is making the purchases and setting up things like “withholding accounts” (like you will need to do in Georgia, for example) or setting up a local LLC.
It also makes a difference in who is going to ultimately file a tax return. Let us not forget, these are tax credits. Will you, the production company, be doing all this extra work? Will the network? Good question, right?
Will the production need to sell the transferable credits (like Georgia or Connecticut) on the open market, or will the network? Will the production company have to pay any application of issuance fees? Who will pay for the CPA if a 3rd party audit is required (which quite a few states do require BTW)?
All very important questions for the sake of budgeting and creating the cost for your project even before you step foot on location! But make no mistake, either way the accounting work of flagging your local purchases, payroll, additional forms, and reports will fall on the production company's shoulders. So crew up and crew up well for accounting 100%!
I know what you are thinking: “Cut to the chase will you! Where should I film my unscripted project?”
Unfortunately, it is not that cut and dry.
What I can tell you is what states do and do not currently accept unscripted productions for their incentives. Most actually do accept unscripted projects of some sort, but not all.
For example, New York, California, and Tennessee do not for their core programs. However, some states just don’t have such a blanket statement, and it can become a bit of a gray area. Rhode Island accepts docs but not reality. New Jersey accepts unscripted but only if utilizing very specific facility requirements.
You should be aware of these types of requirements. If a state has a high minimum spend or per episode minimum spend (which means how much money you are actually spending in the state), you need to know.
North Carolina’s rules state that you must spend 500K per episode to qualify. If a state program allows for unscripted, it may also have a required amount of locals to be hired, like in Texas.
There might be even larger hurdles to jump. Some states, like Utah, may not qualify non-residents at all. In that case, it may be hard for you to really capitalize on a program if your crew is from one locale and traveling from one to the next. Odds are you will have a majority of non-residents on your crew, and thus your spend would be much less and your return could diminish.
Remember that with incentives, it’s about where the work was done. If it wasn’t done in the state you are applying for, it simply doesn’t qualify. In fact, some states may dictate how much actual spending needs to take place in the state to qualify or how much of your budget needs to happen within the state borders.
Why is this crucial for unscripted? Because, as we all know, a bulk of unscripted content is championed in post.
For example, let’s say we’re filming in Colorado because of the mountains and access to river trout of course. Colorado allows for unscripted content to qualify and you film all principal photography there. But let’s say that show is a post-heavy show and your post house is off in Connecticut (for the lobster rolls). In that case, post-production will not qualify for the Colorado incentives.
As a sidebar, here’s a hot tip for you: Connecticut has a post-only portion of their incentive program. In that scenario, if you met Connecticut’s requirements, your post for a show shot in Colorado could qualify. But only for the post that was done in CT! Make sense? So what do you do? Well, the short answer is you give me a shout and I will help. But it always helps to learn how to do it on your own.
Do your homework, the info is out there. Try not to ask other filmmakers what the best program is, because what was best for one show was not best for another. Find the best state for your show.
Do not let the fact that you are working on an unscripted project make you think there are not programs for you. There are many states that are perfect for you and you just have to find them.
While scripted programs get all the notoriety for production incentives, it’s simply not the case that unscripted can’t take advantage of it as well.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out Wrapbook’s guides to film grants or our state-by-state breakdown of tax incentives. Or try our Wrapbook's brand new AI Production Incentives Tool to find the incentives for YOUR production.
Scouting production locations? We’re breaking down 10 states with considerable film tax breaks so you can get the most bang for your budget buck.
Wrapbook's newest resource is our podcast, "On Production," which features experts in the field and tips on how to navigate the production world. Check it out!