Even as Kentucky becomes more generous with its film tax credits, it’s getting more miserly about what it reveals to the public.
Until last August, the Kentucky Office of Film and Tourism Development publicly disclosed basic information about each of the projects that it had agreed to subsidize, including the name and address of the production company; the working title of the proposed movie or television show, if there was one; and a short description of the project, such as a plot synopsis.
That usually provided enough clues for reporters, lawmakers and other curious citizens to piece together which movies and television shows were in line for public money — assuming they’re completed.
For example: In October 2015, the state’s film office disclosed that it had approved up to $1.19 million in film tax credits for JL Lansberg Ranch Productions LLC of Los Angeles “to produce a fictional feature film that tells the story of a family’s struggle to maintain ownership of a ranch that has been in the family for multiple generations.” (The final sum awarded for that project, after it was finished, was $952,866.)
With the plot description, it’s possible to connect the state’s incentive to “JL Ranch,” a 2016 Hallmark Channel movie starring Jon Voight as the cantankerous rancher. Without the plot description, it’s just a dollar figure and a limited liability corporation in L.A.
But the public doesn’t get that information anymore. Last August — around the time the Herald-Leader was reporting its last story on the state’s film tax credits — the film office reduced its public descriptions of subsidized film projects to “a full-length feature film,” “ a television show” or “a commercial.” It does continue to identify the production companies.
If the public wants to learn more about the publicly subsidized film projects, it can call each individual production company and ask them if they are willing to disclose it, said Jay Hall, who runs the state’s film office.
The rest of the incentives process already is opaque. Decisions to approve the film tax credits are discussed behind closed doors in Frankfort by the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority. All members of the public must leave the room.
Hall said the state’s film office stopped offering more information about the projects to avoid breaching the confidentiality typically expected of companies entering into financial incentive agreements with the state.
“That was on the advice of our general counsel, who feared our descriptions were too descriptive,” Hall said.
However, Louisville attorney Jon Fleischaker, who helped write the state’s open government laws, said a potential movie outline does not sound like proprietary information to him when the producer is asking for public assistance.
“I don’t see how this would be confidential under the open records law. This isn’t their tax information, this isn’t their internal finances, it’s a one-sentence plot synopsis of what their movie or TV show is supposed to be about,” Fleischaker said.
“And as a matter of policy, I have to strongly disagree with this idea that the state is allowed to withhold information about where our money is going,” the attorney added. “Toyota can’t apply for a tax rebate and reveal nothing about what it’s for. We’re entitled to go to the state and say, ‘You’re committing $10 million of our money to this film project, what is it? Tell us something about it.’ The public is entitled to know something about what it’s investing in.”
State Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, said he used the descriptions of subsidized film projects to question Hall at meetings of the legislature’s Government Contract Review Committee. Once, for example, he wanted to know why Kentucky taxpayers were supporting a short film about Thomas Jefferson walking into a bar, which seemed wasteful, Hornback said. So the lawmaker said he wasn’t really surprised when the film office began withholding the information.
“I immediately asked them about it,” Hornback said Friday. “They said, ‘Well, you know, we just decided it wasn’t necessary to offer this information to you anymore.’ I said, ‘No, you decided you wanted to start hiding it from now on.’”