RI Film and TV claims 'Gilded Age' will boost Newport tourism, but do the numbers add up?

NEWPORT — While cast and crew prepare to return to Newport to film the second season of HBO’s "The Gilded Age" television series this May and September, the state Film and Television Office suggests the series’ use of Newport already generates $45,000 in advertising value each time the City-by-the-Sea is on screen.

“(There are) great opportunities for a show like 'The Gilded Age' because of its iconic locations, because it's a period piece,” said R.I. Film and Television Office Executive Director Steven Feinberg. “We have partners working together to take advantage (of that) as much as we can.”

The Film and Television Office is in charge of administering the state’s Motion Picture/TV Incentive Tax Credit, a reimbursement program created to attract film and television productions to work in Rhode Island. Most recently, productions such as "Hocus Pocus 2" and "The Gilded Age" were filmed in Newport.

Actors Amy Forsyth (as Caroline “Carrie” Astor), left, Ashlie Atkinson (Mamie Fish) and Harry Richardson (Larry Russell) stroll across the lawn of The Ledges in Newport in the HBO drama "The Gilded Age."
Actors Amy Forsyth (as Caroline “Carrie” Astor), left, Ashlie Atkinson (Mamie Fish) and Harry Richardson (Larry Russell) stroll across the lawn of The Ledges in Newport in the HBO drama "The Gilded Age."

Feinberg gave an overview of the office's work in bringing "The Gilded Age" to Newport at the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce annual meeting on March 31 and how it is expected to impact Newport’s economy and tourism now that the second season has been greenlit.

“This project, for me, encompasses everything we wanted to do,” Feinberg said. “When I first took on my position 18 years ago, the first words out of my mouth were, ‘The Newport Mansions.’ I knew those were gems and I always prayed that one day we would have a movie or TV series of the highest caliber to promote our state to the world.”

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Feinberg hired Industrial Economics, Inc., a data analysis organization from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to examine how certain projects that came out of the Motion Picture Tax Incentive program impacted local economies throughout the state.

The presentation created to explain its findings says "The Gilded Age" has the potential to increase local tourism by associating the show and its historical setting with Newport and its mansions.

Although the presentation says potential impact estimates for "The Gilded Age" are premature, as the show is still fairly new, it claims the estimated advertising value for each instance a recognizable Rhode Island or Newport location was showcased or a shot was inside one of the Newport mansions is about $45,000.

This figure is derived from the average number of people who watch each episode — around three million for episodes one through four— and the “cost per advertisement,” although the presentation does not explain that aspect in depth.

Visitors to the Newport mansions are talking about 'The Gilded Age'

The Newport mansions are owned and operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County. Executive Director Trudy Coxe said the organization does not have the ability to gauge whether tourists are visiting the mansions as a result of "The Gilded Age," as there are several factors that could contribute to the current visitation rates.

However, Coxe said staff members already have come across several visitors who either watched the show, or have heard about it.

"There is absolutely something stirring out there, and I think we will only see it grow," Coxe said.

Coxe also said the Preservation Society's social media posts about the show and the website in general have boomed in unique visitors, suggesting an increase in interest.

Beyond advertising value and tourism potential, Feinberg said filming the show in Newport generated revenue for local businesses.

“We had extras for the finale, the big dance scene,” Feinberg said. “About 100 extras, local folk. Normally, those folks would get ready, maybe do a rehearsal and go home, right? Not during a pandemic. They had to be quarantined. Each of those extras had to be in a hotel room, I think it was for five nights. So that’s 500 extra heads in the beds for the various hotels here in Rhode Island during the shoulder season."

The R.I. Film and TV Office first presented this analysis to the state House of Representatives Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Tourism, Arts and Recreation, chaired by Newport Democrat Lauren Carson.

After the presentation, Carson said she spoke with officials at the Preservation Society, who told her the mansions in general attract more academic and wealthy visitors to Newport.

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“They generally are tourists who come with more money to Newport. They don’t stay a long time, they don’t do the wild and crazy parties in the streets that the Newport folks don’t like. They’re really people who come to enjoy the historical content,” Carson said. “The specifics of the tourism activity that 'The Gilded Age' might draw could bring a specific type of tourist to town.”

Taking a look at the tax numbers

While both the Film and TV Office and Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce were optimistic about this analysis, the Department of Revenue’s recently released study on the Motion Picture Tax Credit’s effectiveness in generating economic activity for the state suggested a lack of consistency with how the Film and TV Office collects data on these productions.

It also found the amount of money generated through employment and net state taxes during the filming of these productions did not “break even” with the amount of taxes reimbursed.

At the Chamber of Commerce annual meeting, Feinberg said productions have to spend a minimum of $100,000 in Rhode Island in order to qualify for the 30% tax credit. He added that Industrial Economics found every tax dollar reimbursed returned $5.44 of economic activity for the state.

However, the Department of Revenue’s report claims that because 81% of production spending was on compensation, mostly to “highly paid 'above-the-line' talent such as producers, directors, and featured actors,” outside of the state, the tax credit does not generate enough economic activity to balance out. About 19% of the compensation spending was for in-state vendors, the report noted.

In the presentation of its own report to the RI House Oversight Subcommittee on Tourism, the Film and TV Office claimed the two reports cannot be compared as the Department of Revenue's report is based on incomplete Department of Taxation data from 11 productions that took place between 2016 to 2018, whereas the Industrial Economics report used expenditures provided to them and analyzed the following residual economic activity.

Still, one of the key findings of the DOR report was 80% of tax credit recipients failed to comply with data submission requirements or gave inconsistent and unreliable information, making the program's efficacy hard to quantify.

This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: 'The Gilded Age' in Newport, RI, expected to boost tourism