As a follow-up to my previous article about creating an ethical framework for design and decision-making, I want to explore a public policy use case using visual modeling to really look at the up- and down-sides of a potential policy choice.
Film Industry Incentives - An Example
The use case I’m going to play with is state financial incentives for the film industry. As someone who has dabbled in student and amateur filmmaking, this is a subject that is near to my heart. Both my home state of Texas and my adopted state of Virginia are among the approximately 37 states that offer various monetary carrots to lure production companies to film within their borders.
Map the Benefits
Often, when we’re evaluating a decision or project, we focus on the potential benefits. We prioritize those benefits, assign metrics to them, and use those as selling points to win the hearts and minds of stakeholders. If I wanted to sell “tax breaks for film companies” to my state legislature, I could create a mind-map of all the related benefits, and it makes a very compelling argument. I’ll shade the benefits green because green means growth!
- More film production means more good paying jobs.
- More film jobs means our college students studying film tech, acting, and related fields will stay in the state instead of moving away or transitioning to other careers due to lack of opportunity.
- More film production means related support industries will move to the state, boosting the economy even more.
- More film production means increased tourism because our state landmarks and natural wonders will be effectively publicized through the media.
- A robust film industry will pay for the incentives by increasing state tax revenues.
Okay, who doesn’t want all of that? What kind of fool would vote against all of this goodness? It makes great economic sense plus the film industry is just sexy and creative. Supporting the arts makes our communities better.
Then Analyze the Downsides
However, it would be legislative malpractice to end the discussion there. As with any big decision, before casting your vote, you need to listen to the naysayers and examine the potential downsides and the flaws. This isn’t buzzkill – this is absolutely necessary for making sound and ethical choices.
So let’s look at the benefits listed above, turn them inside out, and see if they really hold up. As we analyze each, we’ll add another layer of information to our mind map – the “negatives” which we’ll shade yellow for “slow down and pay attention.”
- More good paying jobs – There’s a lot of money in the film business, but are film crew jobs really well-paying? Production assistants earn on average about $33k annually. Film camera operators average about the same. Plus, if you’re a right-to-work state, there is a likelihood that you’ll attract lower-budget productions that are hoping to reduce production costs by paying film crews less than they would in a union market.
- Keeping our talented college graduates – The film industry is tough to make a living in because of low pay, long hours, and more skilled graduates than jobs. Some will find their niche in local or independent productions. Many will move to NY or California to try to make their mark. About 80% of film students end up leaving the field for other professions.
- Related industries move to state – Despite years of incentives offered by various states, California and New York remain the center of gravity for the film industry and all its related businesses. For example, while a production company might come to the shoot a period film in Colonial Williamsburg, chances are they are bringing in actors from California and doing all of the post-production and distribution in California as well.
- Increased tourism – This benefit actually does hold up to closer inspection. Successful films that reach a wide audience have shown a marked uptick in short-term tourism. Field of Dreams, Casino Royale, Lord of the Rings, Rocky, and many others have featured iconic landmarks or landscapes that film buffs want to visit. Not every movie has that kind of impact, but it’s a real effect. Whether the locals agree that it’s a positive effect is another question.
- Incentives pay for themselves plus some – The idea behind any industry incentive is that the initial or ongoing financial outlay is rewarded by an increase in tax revenue for the state. But unless the growth is big enough and sustained enough, this doesn’t happen. Virginia saw a disappointing return of 30 cents for every dollar spent on their program.
Obviously, this sample mind map is pretty simplified, and each of these points deserves more in-depth analysis than I can cover in a short article.
The reason to do this kind of analysis, no matter how you choose to organize or present it, is to create a framework to dig deeper into each benefit or goal and see what the stumbling blocks or risks are. Failure to give equal time and weight to the downsides is irresponsible decision making and puts organizations in peril of project failure or worse.