BY JAKE CLAPP, JEREMY HARPER
POSTED MAY 22, 2013
A GROUP OF LOCAL BUILDERS AND BUSINESS OWNERS DRIVE AND BENEFIT FROM THE GROWING BATON ROUGE FILM INDUSTRY
When the 2005 action-comedy The Dukes of Hazzard filmed in Baton Rouge, the production needed a pair of cow horns to mount to the front of Boss Hogg’s car. The crew finally found a set at Circa 1857 on Government Street.
The movie crew purchased the set of horns on hand and ordered a dozen more through the local shop, as well as picking up a copper washing machine and zinc lids for old canning jars. It was a big sale for the small business, said owner Sally Conklin.
That hasn’t been the end of it. In the years since, Circa 1857 has become a routine spot for productions shooting in the area to find antiques, oddities and artwork.
“Some months are better than others, but it’s easily $10,000 worth of business a year, which is huge for a small business like us,” Conklin said.
Such stories have become more common throughout the city. As the Baton Rouge film industry continues to expand, a small network of vendors and skilled workers has grown up around the city’s film productions, which range from small-budget television shows to $100 million blockbusters. Local shop owners and hardware stores regularly provide props and materials, caterers serve food to cast and crew, and dozens of area builders, welders and other skilled workers make a full-time living working on film projects alone.
It’s a dynamic that is mostly unseen, as productions quietly slip in to the city, film and slide out with little fanfare. The impact on the city, however, is lasting.
Conklin said Circa 1857 has sold or rented items to productions filming across the state, including 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which shot in New Orleans. Most recently, crews working on the upcoming miniseries Bonnie and Clyde came through looking for artwork to use in the background of its Baton Rouge shoots.
Even Conklin’s pet Shih Tzu, Schmitzy, has taken advantage. The dog appeared briefly as an extra on an episode of Breakout Kings.
“It was a non-speaking role, so she didn’t get paid,” Conklin said with a laugh.
Marsha Rish, owner of Honeymoon Bungalow, the mid-city vintage department store specializing in the ‘50s and ‘60s, has helped decorate the sets on a number of movies, beginning with The Badge, a 2002 thriller starring Billy Bob Thornton and Patricia Arquette.
She said the store’s largest single sale to a film was $3,000. Most of the time it’s just a few hundred dollars. Still, the business makes an impact on the store’s bottom line.
“We pray on a daily basis that a movie buyer walks in,” Rish said. “If they were to screw around with the laws to chase them away, it’s not going to be good for anybody.”
The requests, which are often urgent, can at times be rather odd. Monster’s Ball, Rish said, needed a ton of old paint-by-number pictures to line a wall of a house. The action flick Battle: Los Angeles bought $600 of “just literally trash” – cracked pots, dead plants, iron works and broken bits of wooden tables – that was piled up outside the store. Buyers for the glossy and futuristic Tom Cruise blockbuster Oblivion made a decidedly low-tech purchase from the store.
“I had no clue it was a sci-fi movie because they came in and bought primitive stuff from us,” Rish said. “They bought rocks and they brought them to the New Mexico filming location.”
Noah Bradley moved to Baton Rouge several years ago from New Mexico, lured by the growing film industry and the apparent need for people with on-set expertise.
Bradley had given up film work during the housing boom, focusing instead on home building, but after the market crash he found himself searching for new opportunities. He researched several possibilities, including Atlanta and New Orleans, but ultimately chose Baton Rouge because the weather allows for year-round filming (unlike New Orleans, where insurance concerns can slow down productions during hurricane season). It was the labor market here that was the tipping point.
“Baton Rouge seemed like a really good place to do business where I had the opportunity to be one of the few people in town that do what I do,” Bradley said.
Bradley works on television and film production as a construction manager, supervising carpenters, sculptors, plasters, welders, landscapers and painters who are all building props and sets. In addition to hiring the crews, Bradley does all of the budgeting, bidding, and purchasing of materials, almost all of which are sourced locally. He has worked as a construction coordinator on more than 15 movies and television shows, including the Coen brother’s western, True Grit, and the SNL spinoff MacGruber.
Since moving to Baton Rouge, Bradley has worked on several projects before landing a construction coordinator gig for the upcoming Fox production Maze Runner, a feature length film that tells the story of a group of boys trapped in a maze in post-apocalyptic world. It’s one of three sizable productions currently in works in the city – this includes the miniseries Bonnie and Clyde, and the Gold Circle Production film Search Party.
Bradley said the studios prefer to hire mostly local workers for the productions. Of the 100 people in his Maze Runner crew, only about 10 are from out of state. The average crewmember, he said, makes $275 a day.
“Any local crew member that’s getting a paycheck or spending money locally,” he said. “That’s a lot of money being spent.”
Jeremy Woolsey, a Baton Rouge-based art director for films, television and commercials, said a carpenter working 2-3 movies a year can earn $70,000.
“That’s a lot of money kicking into the local economy,” Woolsey said.
More than enough
Celtic Media Centre director of studio operations Patrick Mulhearn said that most productions using the facility will prefer to hire local crews. Always budget conscious, major studios looking to produce in an area find it more efficient to hire local workers. But it can be a double-edged sword.
“In reality, we have so much business in Louisiana that we sometimes won’t have enough crew,” Mulhearn said. “So you do have to bring in people; you have to supplement. We haven’t grown the crew base fast enough to meet demand, and when that happens, when you don’t have enough crew to meet demand, suddenly [studios] start looking at other states. Well, who offers 30 percent on residents and non-residents? And we know the obvious answer on that is Georgia, which is our fiercest competitor.”
Mulhearn added the crew base is ever expanding, and more specialized positions – those crew jobs studios usually fill with its own talent – are starting to be eyed by locals.
“We’re only about 10 years into this incentive program, and a really good production designer, construction coordinator, art department heads, those people have put 20 to 30 years into the industry, so it’s tough to get those key positions, right now,” Mulhearn said. “The hope is, over time, our people continue to move up, further and faster, and we’re seeing that happen naturally. These are very budget conscious people who realize that if you hire locally, it will save you money.”
Mulhearn added that one of his favorite examples of local business benefitting from the Baton Rouge film industry came from when Battleship filmed in town.
“Battleship brought in a caterer that was really conscious of what he served. He wanted the freshest produce imaginable,” he said. “So we would go down to the Red Stick Farmers market and almost buy up the whole thing. You would have these mom and pop farmers that thought they would only sell a couple of tomatoes suddenly have their entire stock gone.”