MEDIA RIGHTS Capital, the production company behind the red-hot Netflix series “House of Cards,” has a message for Maryland: “Nice little economy you got there. What a shame if something would happen to it.”
Well, those weren’t the exact words of letters MRC recently sent Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). What the company actually said was that it has very much enjoyed filming “House of Cards” in Baltimore, Annapolis and other Maryland locations, but it might “break down our stage, sets and offices and set up in another state” unless Maryland passed a law granting MRC additional tax credits on top of the $26.6 million it has already received.
We suggest that Maryland’s elected officials ask themselves this question: What would Frank Underwood do? Mr. Underwood is the Machiavellian, and totally fictional, politician protagonist of “House of Cards,” and while real-world officeholders in Annapolis could never employ his occasionally bloody methods, they could apply his clear-eyed attitude about power to the issue before them.
MRC’s gambit would have come as no surprise to Mr. Underwood; he’s savvy enough to understand that filmmakers, like other businesses, pit the 50 states against one another, promising to locate production and “create jobs” wherever they are offered the sweetest subsidies — er, economic development “incentives.” Though the film company’s threat to leave was perhaps a bit unsubtle, it was no more over the top than the claim Marylandofficials have offered to justify the tax breaks to date: “House of Cards” has created nearly 6,000 jobs and pumped $250 million into the state economy.” (Does the job Kevin Spacey got to play Frank Underwood count? What about productivity lost due to binge-watching by state residents?)
An expert in policy as well as politics, Mr. Underwood would immediately realize that such figures are inherently phony, especially since they don’t account for the economic activity that might have been generated through alternative uses of the state’s money. Maryland can easily live without “House of Cards.”
For all that, Mr. Underwood would waste little time imagining that any one state could stand alone and stop the beggar-thy-neighbor business in which all 50 of them, and the District, engage. Instead, the challenge is how to keep “House of Cards” in Maryland at an acceptable price — without signaling to all would-be investors that Maryland is a pushover. No doubt Maryland’s politicians like basking in the reflected glow of Mr. Spacey and his fellow celebrities. The MRC letter offered Mr. O’Malley a chance “to spend time with our cast and crew once again.” But Frank Underwood would never be swayed by anyone’s star power — and neither should the governor and lawmakers.
MRC has made Maryland a hard-nosed business proposition. The state should respond in kind. Elected officials must be prepared to leave the negotiating table and let “House of Cards” go rather than submit to a bad deal for the taxpayers they represent. Just like Frank Underwood would.