Gov. Phil Murphy Visits Hollywood to Tubthump New Jersey Production Tax Credits: ‘Our Incentives Are as Competitive as Any in the World’

Gov. Phil Murphy has made TV and film a top priority for New Jersey ever since he took the helm of the Garden State in 2018. This week, Murphy made a West Coast swing to talk artificial intelligence with firms in the Bay Area and to talk new business with studios in Hollywood. Murphy’s targeted courtship has helped spark a building boom across New Jersey for soundstages and production facilities. Here Murphy discusses the impact of the state’s production tax incentive program and why he sees Georgia as a bigger rival for luring productions than neighboring New York.

You’ve just come off a West Coast trip to promote New Jersey as a growing media and entertainment hub. What was your specific mission, and how do you feel your conversations were received?

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We’ve been doing this annually since we got into office. As governor, film and television and digital have been a priority since day one. And the conversations [with Hollywood] have only gotten better. We tweaked our incentives, which are now as competitive as any in the world. We’ve gotten to know the players personally now over many years, many of them are doing big projects in New Jersey. All of which makes each of our successive missions more successful than before, and this was no exception.

We were selling New Jersey, checking in with folks who are already making investments and producing either television series or films in New Jersey. We were extremely well received. Clearly the incentives are as competitive as any in the world but we’ve got the soft stuff as well. We’ve got values, which really matter, whether it’s reproductive freedoms or being the No. 1 state to raise a family or on the climate, you name it. We’re a big pro-union pro union state, including with IATSE and Teamsters and SAG-AFTRA and the writers. There’s a lot to like about New Jersey.

What are your specific selling points for doing business in New Jersey versus New York? Do you make a purely economic argument about the cost of living in the Garden State versus Manhattan?

We do. Our plain-vanilla incentives are 35% plus a 2% to 4% percent kicker for diversity. And while we have a $500,000 per person [cap] above the line, all of that gets unlocked and supercharged if you either build a studio or you lease space from someone who has built studios in New Jersey.

I find that we’re much more in competition Georgia than with New York. In terms of the big studios and the big, bold strokes that we’re pursuing, Georgia is as much on the radar as anywhere else right now. It also feels like the incentive program itself in Georgia has gotten political. And that’s not the case in Jersey and I don’t expect that it will become the case.

But tax incentive programs can become controversial if voters feel like they are giveaways to Hollywood. Are you confident that New Jersey gets more than a dollar back for every dollar it devotes to tax credits for production activity?

Supremely confident. I’ll give you a couple of metrics. The math argument only looks narrowly what does the state put out versus what came back into the state’s coffers. And to me, that’s a fraction of the argument. The argument really is, for what the state put out, what did that lead to in terms of economic activity in New Jersey? Right now, for every dollar we’re putting on the street, we’re getting $6 to $8 back in economic activity. That’s at the high end and will likely go higher when the big studio partners like Netflix are up and running [with dedicated stages]. So that’s a significant impact that, by the way, is both immediate and it’s broad. And the thing I love is that it’s local. It’s [helping] the diner, the dry cleaner, the hotel, the caterer. …The other metric I will give you is that the year before we got here, economic activity in total in film and television [in the state] was mostly music videos and infomercials. It was something like $65 million. The numbers aren’t in for 2023 but we think they’re around $800 million.

Netflix is moving into Fort Monmouth for studio space and Lionsgate is helping to develop a studio and retail complex in Newark. Are there other major soundstage or production infrastructure projects in the works?

You’ve got Cinelease in Jersey City with three soundstages. It sounds to me like they’re going to be expanding in Kearny. There is a studio that is in the works, who we met with the principals of, in West Orange and then there’s a big one which is public knowledge, called 1888 Studios, which is in formation in Bayonne, New Jersey, which is right on the Hudson River across from New York City. So those are the ones that are out there but we’ve had conversations with others that are not public knowledge. There continues to be a keen interest to both make stuff and to invest in bricks and mortar. So watch that space as they say.

What are New Jersey’s other economic pillars right now? What are the main driver of your state’s economy?

We’re an innovation economy. The traditional anchors would be pharmaceutical, bio and life sciences, tech and telecom and then increasingly, fin-tech. We’ve had Wall Street’s middle and back office for decades. Financial technology is a natural for us, and we’re going to make a big announcement on that in a couple of weeks. Adult-use cannabis is big. Sports betting, which is a first cousin of fin-tech, is big. And increasingly — film, television digital. And we have been very public about making an intentional and big bet on generative artificial intelligence. We announced a big joint venture with Princeton University [in December 2023].

With all that you’ve got going on, what is the next frontier for New Jersey, in entertainment or other business sectors?

More of the same. I’ve got a year and a half-plus remaining as governor, I want to leave the table set as well as it can be for the generation to follow. And I think we’re on track for a lot of really exciting stuff. So, further development of the projects I mentioned, development of projects that are not yet on the radar screen but we’re planting seeds. Continuing to produce a lot of content in New Jersey. I’ll give you an example: There’s a movie called “Miller by Marriage” which Ed Burns is producing, directing, writing and starring in filming in Morristown. My wife went up there. She knows the Burns family from other walks of life. They were thrilled — effusive about how they feel about how they’ve been treated [by state and local officials during filming]. We just hired a new executive director for our Motion Picture and Television Commission who you may know — Jon Crowley, a veteran showrunner and producer himself. In some states, the film commissioner basically says, ‘Hey, welcome’ to whatever the state is and that’s the last you see them. Jon’s commitment is basically to provide a high-end concierge service — scouting, going through any permitting issues, continuing to build out the Film Ready NJ program in communities. Clearing brush. if you will.

Gov. Murphy, I have to ask, there’s been speculation about your political future. Do you have the ambition to pursue another political office once your governorship is done?

I’ve got nothing at the moment. But more importantly — I’m a recovering thespian which is probably part of the reason I’m so into [boosting production in New Jersey]. It’s not just good for the economy and for job creation. I’m a big fan of the arts. I acted a lot in middle school, high school and in college. So I feel like I’m at home with this industry.

So clearly your next target is the stage?

[Laughs]. I wouldn’t say that either. I have no plans at this point. If I come to something, I’ll make sure Variety knows about it.

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