Hollywood South’s resurgence: How film production crews are getting back to work in Louisiana

Just before sunset on a weekday afternoon, a film crew prepared to shoot a scene outside the Belle of Baton Rouge casino. 

Local film director Richie Adams was working on his production, "The Road Dance," which began filming on remote islands off the coast of Scotland several months ago and is wrapping up in Baton Rouge, tapping its ability to mimic a much larger city.

"We were shooting downtown Baton Rouge to be downtown New York City. Belle of Baton Rouge let us shoot their wonderful brick buildings on France Street," he said.

Set before World War I, the film features a young woman living in a small village who overcomes adversity during a historically difficult time. It is adapted from a book by John Mackay and is slated to be shown at film festivals in the coming months.    

Film production crews like this one are expected to become more frequent sights across Louisiana as the digital media industry looks to fill hungry customer demand for streaming content online and for theaters that have been reopening to larger, less-restricted capacities with new movie releases.

“We kind of stayed down most of the summer like everyone else, then we got geared up again in September,” said Todd Lewis, of New Orleans-based production company Crimson Pictures. "It's been a boom ever since."

Most of the crews are booked through the fall.

"It's a great thing that we're having a hard time finding local crew. It means that everybody is working," Lewis said.

Still, the industry is in the early phases of recovery and facing the residual impact of COVID safety measures. 

"I would think that we're at least a year out before we're back to the norm," Adams said. "The thing would be: Can your production handle the extra burden of COVID safety and protocols because it's a financial burden to the production?"

The past year has been "horrible" for independent film producers, said Parker Lewis, owner of Lafayette-based Parker Lewis Films, especially because of uncertainty about asymptomatic people who may be spreading coronavirus without realizing it.

"I haven't been able to make that extra money," said Lewis, who also works in the public school system. "It slowed down a lot and even now it's slowly picking back up." Like Adams, she thinks it will take another year or so before demand hits pre-pandemic levels.

At Celtic Studios in Baton Rouge, an indoor film stage, the company is gearing up for its first big production customer in about a year. The production will lease space for three months and could spend upward of $50 million during that time. 

"We now have a feature film with one of the major studios," said Aaron Bayham, director of operations at Celtic Studios. "That will be a good project for us to get back on the horse."

The staging company had some work during the pandemic, but it was far and few between. Now inquiries about booking space has picked up. 

"It is probably busier than before the shutdown because there is a backlog of projects," Bayham said. 

A half-dozen productions were filming in March, a year after the big shutdown on a Friday the 13th. 

Meanwhile, another six productions were expected from April into May — all in New Orleans, according to the state's entertainment hotline that's used to recruit crews and cast members. That's roughly how many were in various phases of production when the stay-at-home order was enacted last year. 

“Originally, everyone thought it was going to be a two-week hiatus and then it got a little bit longer, then a little bit longer and then the industry not only pressed pause here in Louisiana but this was a global pause,” said Chris Stelly, executive director for Entertainment and Digital Media at LED. 

Seven businesses are on track to spend $61.7 million across Louisiana this year, according to state film office estimates received through late February. 

In 2020, there were 44 applications by film and digital media companies, which estimated they would spend $542 million in the state. That was down 30.7%, compared to 75 applications and $783 million in 2019. New applications last year came to a halt when production was suspended. However, nearly all of the projects resumed filming since then, according to LED.

Only one company in "very early stages" never returned because the series was canceled due to future commitments of cast members in other productions. 

“What we’re noticing is traditional supply and demand economics. The supply has been exhausted, while demand continues to remain at an all-time high,” Stelly said. “You’ve got all these streaming options that just need content.”

During 2020, there was $429.6 million in motion picture production certified, compared to $538.5 million in 2019. Louisiana resident payroll was $157.7 million last year, compared to $167.5 million in 2019. There was another $95.8 million certified digital media production, up from $94.8 million one year before. Live performance production certified in 2020 was $12 million, compared to $16.1 million in 2019. There was $151,034 in sound recording production in 2020, down from $412,033 in 2019. 

Actual production spending is audited later by the state, and economic incentives are awarded accordingly. Those dollars are not necessarily spent during those calendar years because companies can submit payroll receipts for reimbursement up to two years after a production occurred, according to the state, which supports the industry through often-criticized state tax credits.

A study in 2018 showed for every dollar spent on the tax credit programs for the entertainment industry in Louisiana — mainly the film tax credit — state and local governments get about 36 cents back in tax revenue.

While coronavirus restrictions have changed the way crews and cast members work, the audience isn't likely to notice. 

"That will be the goal, for the viewer to not know the difference," Lewis said. “People have been using digital people; they’ve been using cardboard cutouts; there’s also blow-up people that you can put in stands or in crowds. There’s a lot of different ways to do things."

Restaurants shot in snippets can appear bustling while only half full. A few seconds of a wide shot in a stadium can give the effect of a crowd, even if most of the people in the stands are inanimate objects. 

"In movies and TV, that's all you really need, just one or two seconds," Lewis said. "We tried CGI (computer-generated imagery), but it wasn't worth it. We didn't find it cost-effective for the shows that I was on." 

Now that there are more productions in the pipeline, even though movie theaters were closed, and that means demand for casting has increased. 

"We've seen a big move into digital streaming," said Brent Caballero, owner of Caballero Casting, a company with offices in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Still, it hasn't reached pre-pandemic demand yet. While there was an uptick in casting demand in November, that dropped off through December, January and February. Crews navigated coronavirus restrictions as many shows wrapped up, seeking to blend scenes shot before the pandemic and after restrictions were being phased out. 

For example, the entire jury used in Showtime Series "Your Honor," set in New Orleans, was quarantined. Some wore masks during the scenes as writers wove in references to the coronavirus pandemic. 

"It was quite the ordeal to pull that one off," Caballero said, "especially for the background actors. They did a fabulous job committing to it. The people that we have hired, we've kept them steadily employed. This is otherwise a lot of part-time work. We practically put a lot of the background actors on payroll."

There's another uptick of work expected as the company looks to cast for nine different projects through June. 

"There's a project in May that I would say would probably be operating at pre-pandemic levels," Caballero said about a football movie for Netflix. "But currently we're still operating with small casts and few extras. A lot of the features, which are getting greenlit, are a model where there's not a big cast."

As the coronavirus restrictions are loosened and more individuals are vaccinated, there's more interest in bigger scenes. Over the summer, there is likely going to be demand for 3,000 cast members among several projects. Projects this year, which may need between 50 to 75 people prior to the pandemic, would have needed 100 cast members. 

It's unclear whether there will be enough potential cast members, especially extras, to meet demand as many individuals changed careers after the pandemic started. 

"We don't have as many people submitting for projects," he said. "Where we would put a casting notice out prior to COVID, we would get hundreds of submissions. In November and December, we barely got enough submissions for what we needed. We were cold-calling tons of people. It's begun to get a little better, but we're still not seeing as many people interested in the work as we did prior to COVID." 

By Kristen Mosbrucker


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