By Jennifer Larino, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
It started with a silver Honda Civic. Two doors, not four.
In 2001, Andre Champagne scraped together his savings to buy the car, a trusty partner to hold everything he owned and survive a dusty 1,800-mile drive from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles.
"I had no idea what I wanted to do," Champagne said. "I just knew I wanted to learn the process of making a movie. I wanted to learn the business, the transition from script to screen."
In a sense, Champagne has never left the road. His journey from dreamer to CEO ofHollywood Trucks, with its fleet of nearly 400 trucks, vans and trailers built to move Louisiana's film industry, has earned him the first NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune Excellence in Innovation Award, presented by Liberty Bank. Champagne will receive the award at a dinner Wednesday night.
"The explosive growth in movie and television production has been a critical component of this city's relentless resurgence," said Ricky Mathews, president and publisher of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. "Andre's entrepreneurial spirit and civic-mindedness has been an inspiration to others, and we're proud to recognize him with this honor."
Champagne, 38, started the company when he returned to Louisiana in 2007. Increased film and TV production was starting to expose glaring infrastructure needs. Films were paying as much as $2,000 per week to bring in trucks and trailers from Austin, Texas.
Champagne secured loans, bought five vans and two stake bed trucks, and started renting them out. The same Honda that helped him launch his career doubled as an office on wheels.
Today, Hollywood Trucks rivals some of the largest entertainment transportation fleets in the country. The company has worked on as many as 15 film and TV productions at a time across the Southeast.
Champagne spends his time thinking about how to get equipment from one side of the state to the other on time. He is designing new eco-friendly luxury trailers that run on solar and thermal power.
His job is "like being a high-profile air traffic controller," Champagne said. "Everything is moving all at once."
'Protect your enthusiasm'
Champagne grew up in Napoleonville, a tiny, 600-person town nestled among sugar plantations in Assumption Parish.
His mother, Melanie, and grandfather, William, were "eternal optimists" and taught him to seek solutions, not dwell on problems, he said. His house was filled with books. Education was valued more than any possession.
Champagne, who studied kinesiology at Louisiana State University, thought about going to medical school before deciding to pursue film.
"Protect your enthusiasm," Champagne said. "That's what I was always taught."
The mantra guided Champagne through unpaid production assistant gigs and several failed business ventures. He went broke more than once, selling off furniture to make rent and living off credit cards.
"Films are moving companies. Every day ... a different location. The logistics (are) unbelievably complicated."
He remembers parking far away and walking to lunch meetings at Los Angeles restaurants he could not afford. He wanted the Ferrari-driving Hollywood types to focus on the short film he was pitching not the old Honda he drove.
Now, his days start at 4 a.m., when emails start coming in from Europe, and end late in the evening when Hollywood is winding down its workday.
Motion is a constant for Champagne. An interview is negotiated around an upcoming trip to London. When a fire alarm interrupts the conversation, he deftly runs downstairs while checking emails on his phone.
His office is small, beige and filled with ideas. Samples of eco-friendly fabrics hang over the back of an extra chair. Blown-up blueprints of trailers serve as the main decor.
Champagne digs up a battered, clear plastic storage bin from the bottom of a closet. He bought it when he started Hollywood Trucks to carry title documents, insurance records and other paperwork with him in his trunk. It now holds swag from competitors interested in forging partnerships.
Film in Louisiana was more novelty than industry when Hollywood Trucks started in 2007. The state had just ramped up its film tax credit program from 20 percent to 35 percent of in-state production costs. Film producers were starting to bite.
Hiring vehicles and drivers from outside Louisiana was an added expense for production companies. Champagne said sought to make Hollywood Trucks a one-stop shop for film transportation. He added trucks and trailers customized to each aspect of a production: long counters and varied lighting for hair and makeup trailers; washers and dryers, ironing boards and sewing machines for wardrobe trailers.
"Films, inherently, are moving companies. Every day you might have a different location," Champagne said. "The logistics side of that is an ultra-important, unbelievably complicated process. There's a real science behind it."
Hollywood Trucks grew to more than 200 vehicles by 2012 with the help of private investors. That year, Inc. Magazine featured the company on its list of the 5,000 fastest-growing ventures in the country.
Over the past two years, Champagne has poured his enthusiasm into Ecoluxe, a new Hollywood Trucks line of environmentally friendly talent trailers. The trailers are built with recycled, low-toxin materials and outfitted with solar panels.
Champagne worked closely with a local solar company to design a system that allows the Ecoluxe trailer to run on a mix of solar and generator power. He spent nights tearing apart brand new trailers, searching for ways to make them better, more efficient.
He rejects the notion that "going green" translates to added cost. It saves money and it is the future, at least for Hollywood Trucks, he said.
"What's more cost effective than not burning fuel everyday?" he asked.
Up next: global expansion. Last February, Hollywood Trucks signed a deal to provide entertainment transportation for Pinewood Atlanta Studios. That led to a partnership with parent Pinewood Studios, which is based in the United Kingdom.
Champagne expects to have small fleets up and running in both areas later this year.