State Backing Films Says Cannibal Is Deal-Breaker

When Andrew van den Houten got a letter two weeks ago rejecting his request for Michigan public money to help finance his latest horror movie, “The Woman,” it came with an admonition about the state’s good name.

“This film is unlikely to promote tourism in Michigan or to present or reflect Michigan in a positive light,” wrote Janet Lockwood, Michigan’s film commissioner. Ms. Lockwood particularly objected to “this extreme horror film’s subject matter, namely realistic cannibalism; the gruesome and graphically violent depictions described in the screenplay; and the explicit nature of the script.”

The easy money is not quite so easy any more.

Among the states that began underwriting film and television production with heavy subsidies over the past half-decade — 44 states had some sort of incentives by last year, 28 of them involving tax credits — at least a handful are giving new scrutiny to a question that was politely overlooked in the early excitement: What kind of films are taxpayers paying for?

"Offspring" directed by Andrew van den Houten
"Offspring" directed by Andrew van den Houten

Less than two years ago, Mr. van den Houten became one of the first to take advantage of Michigan’s generous subsidy, which pays for up to 42 percent of a movie’s cost, when he made “Offspring,” a cannibalism-themed horror picture that was later distributed by the Ghost House Underground direct-to-video line and has been showing on NBC Universal’s Chiller TV network.

“The Woman,” a sequel to “Offspring,” is a little less horrific, Mr. van den Houten said in an interview. “We had babies in the first movie,” he offered.

Still, “The Woman” proved too much for Ms. Lockwood. In rejecting the film for public money, she described its financing arrangements as “questionable” — a claim disputed by Mr. van den Houten, who said his Modernciné company has been careful to pay its bills and has other backing for a budget of less than $1 million. But she also invoked a provision of Michigan’s law that says movies underwritten by the state should help promote it as a tourist destination.

Whether such payments ultimately benefit a state and its economy has been the subject of ferocious debate. Some monitors of the programs contend that the supposed benefits from job creation and tourism do not make up for the monies spent. The Michigan State Senate Fiscal Agency estimates the subsidies will amount to about $132 million in the next year.

Content requirements touch a hot button in Hollywood, where filmmakers are on alert for anything that reeks of censorship.

“They’re never going to do that to a major studio film, because it would create too much of a firestorm,” said Michael Shamberg, a producer whose recent credits include “Extraordinary Measures.”

In Texas, the verdict is still out on “Machete,” a thriller from the filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, set for release by 20th Century Fox in September.

In May, Mr. Rodriguez used a mock trailer to promote the movie as a revenge story targeted at Arizona in the wake of its new anti-illegal immigrant law. Conservative bloggers and others then called on the Texas film commission to deny it support under a rule that says the state does not have to pay for projects that include “inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion.”

Bob Hudgins, the film commission’s director, said he had never yet denied financing to a film under the provision — though he warned the makers of a picture about the Waco raid that they need not apply because of what Mr. Hudgins saw as inaccuracies about the event and people connected with it.

Mr. Hudgins said would reserve judgment about “Machete” until he sees it. Texas, like many states, doesn’t pay its share until after a film is finished.

“This is tough for filmmakers to understand, but this is not about their right to make the movie,” Mr. Hudgins explained. “It’s about the public investing in it.”

In an e-mail message, Mr. Rodriguez, who is still finishing “Machete,” said the objections have come from people who do not know what is in the movie.

“The film is not about Texas specifically and it most certainly does not paint Texas in a negative light,” he wrote.

In Florida, a recent legislative proposal to bar a special tax credit for family entertainment from films or shows that exhibit “nontraditional family values” was dropped after it was widely criticized as seeming to exclude gay characters.

Many states, including Tennessee and Georgia, have no explicit provision regarding the tenor of films they underwrite (although no state will subsidize pornography, and many disallow incentives for commercials or certain other formats).

Still, officials in Georgia plan to memorialize an understanding that the state will not pay for a picture that is likely to be rated NC-17. “We really need to go ahead and put that in the rules,” said Bill Thompson, the deputy commissioner for the economic development department’s film, music and digital entertainment division.

Hollywood has long dealt with stringent controls on content imposed by government entities like the Central Intelligence Agency and branches of the military when they offer access, equipment or other help.

“The Pentagon’s policy is they will assist film and television if it shows the military in a positive light, and, if not, they’ll assist in changing the script to put it in a positive light,” said David L. Robb, who wrote the book “Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies.”

That state governments are also tightening their approach was probably inevitable, given the financial squeeze on governments.

“Everybody’s looking at everything so much more carefully,” said Jeff Begun, a partner in the Incentives Office, a company in Santa Monica, Calif., that advises filmmakers.

Pennsylvania has not yet rejected a film for violating its stipulation that publicly supported movies should “tend to foster a positive image” of the state. But it might.

“That would only come into play if I had two applications at some moment, and only had enough funding left for one,” said Jane Saul, the director of the Pennsylvania Film Office. Pennsylvania helped underwrite “The Road,” a post-apocalyptic story that was distributed last year by the Weinstein Company, and which, like Mr. van den Houten’s new film, was rife with cannibals, child-eating and otherwise.

Ken Droz, the communications consultant for the Michigan Film Office, declined to discuss “The Woman.” But he noted that Michigan had approved 160 applications out of 320 submitted to date, after measuring each against criteria that include the potential for creating economic development.

“This is not an entitlement program,” Mr. Droz said.

Mr. van den Houten, whose company is based in New York, said his plan is to move “The Woman” to Massachusetts, where the subsidy program has no apparent strictures on extreme horror.

But he might want to hurry.

“All the states will be looking at this as they begin to tighten their belts,” said Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission. His state has unabashedly declined to fund pictures that, as Mr. Moore put it, you could not take the governor to see.

Of the others, he predicted: “They’re going to ask, why are we giving money to that movie?”