By Travis Andrews
Though known best for crawfish, hurricanes and Mardi Gras, Louisiana is California’s newest film industry rival.
Currently, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are fighting crime with a Pelican State backdrop in22 Jump Street. You may have watched Anna Kendrick sing her way through Baton Rouge inPitch Perfect and soon in its sequel. True Detective took us through the bayous, while Tremeshowcased the ins and outs of the nation’s most eclectic city, the one also serving as setting for the new NCIS: New Orleans.
In fact, according to Film LA, 15 years ago, California produced 64% of the top 25 live-action films (by ticket sales). This past year, it produced 8%. Hollywood still exists, but movies aren't being made there.
Since time immemorial, there’s been talk of the “new Hollywood.” But 2013 is the first year another city fully surpassed it in sheer number of productions, leaving the film industry fractured. Movies are being made in Louisiana, mainly New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport, thanks to a mixture of tax credits, attractive filming locations and a growing pool of local on-set talent.
We wonder about the iconic town’s future when Hollywood's primary export is being produced elsewhere.
The city of angels vs. the city that care forgot
Twenty-four-year-old aspiring actress Jennie Kamin is pretty, witty and a master of accents. In other words, she’s ideal for an acting job. Toss in the fact that she debuted on stage at the tender age of five, following in the footsteps of her mother, grandmother and stepfather, and it seems like a sure bet.
After graduating from Tulane University in 2012 and joining the Screen Actors Guild, she was faced with a choice: Remain in New Orleans, her adoptive home (and one close to her actual home in Texas), or move to Los Angeles and follow the Sunset Boulevard dream.
Ten years ago, L.A. would have been a no-brainer. But 10 years ago, Louisiana didn’t offer the best tax credits in the country for filming and production. According to Louisiana Economic Development, the 2002-born tax credits provide “motion picture productions a 30% transferable tax credit on total in-state expenditures, including resident and non-resident labor, with no cap and a minimum spending requirement of $300,000. For productions using in-state labor, Louisiana offers an additional 5% payroll tax credit.”
That tax credit directly led to Kamin’s choice: New Orleans, for awhile. Living in the Central Business District and auditioning weekly, it seemed like a dream. Though filming seemed to be a constant, and she loved living in the city — “The unique part about New Orleans is that people love to live there. There's creativity there. It's really an artist's town." — a vital aspect of her burgeoning career was missing. Kamin landed roles in the indie Father-Like Son(currently making the festival rounds) and SyFy’s made-for-TV movie American Horror House, but she wasn’t building up the necessary network to truly break into the industry.
Crews might abound in New Orleans, but studios don’t. To find this, she, like so many before her, moved to Los Angeles.
"People are starting to trickle down to New Orleans, but I still think the majority of people at the beginning of their careers are migrating to Los Angeles,” Kamin says. “It is Hollywood, and I think it'll always be Hollywood.”
On the other hand, born and bred New Orleanian Kristen Blaum, 28, left Louisiana for L.A. immediately after graduating from LSU, where she studied broadcast communications. She started at a West Coast NBC Page Program — yes, like Kenneth in 30 Rock. That was in 2009.
But after three years in L.A. and experience working as a production assistant on the TV series Hollywood Heights, Blaum returned to New Orleans. There, she worked on the sets of the Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club, the New Orleans-set 2013 season of Top Chef and the blockbuster sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
“I've seen a definite growth in the film industry in NOLA, especially since 2009,” Blaum says, adding that locals are being trained in direction, writing and crew work. “[I hope they] stick around as they work their way up the ranks."
Therein lies the bifurcation the film industry is seeing: Production is outsourced from the creative hub of L.A. It may not be the first time, but it’s the most extreme one.
Toronto, Michigan and yesterday’s “Hollywood of tomorrow”
According to Ira Deutchman, managing partner of Emerging Pictures and head of the producing program in the graduate film division at Columbia University, Toronto was once a burgeoning film center. So was Michigan, says Trey Ellis, the Emmy-nominated screenwriter responsible for HBO’s The Tuskegee Airman and associate professor in Columbia University’s film department.
The former city offered a good trading rate between the Canadian and American dollar, and the latter offered tax credits. But the moment the dollar evened out and those credits ceased, so did the booms. Like moths to lights, the film industry straight-lined to the cheapest production hub. If Louisiana loses its tax credits, it could lose its grip, too.
There’s always the chance that politicians will revoke Louisana’s tax credits, because it’s impossible to measure the trickle-down impact of filming. The opportunity cost, meanwhile, is far easier to track. Louisiana will be out about $6.2 million for Duck Dynasty alone, and a reported released by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office shows the state will be out$170 million due to the credits.
“Michigan doesn’t have the weather or the history of Louisiana,” says Ellis, but he quickly admits it comes down to money.
Likewise, there’s always the chance that California passes similarly attractive credits, though it seems unlikely. According to Deutchman, California simply can’t afford those same tax credits. In fact, he says “I met the new mayor of Los Angeles, and he was at Sundance trying to find ways to bring production back to L.A.”
As Mari Kornhauser, LSU screenwriting professor and writer for HBO’s post-Katrina seriesTreme, reminds me, the creative talent isn’t moving to New Orleans. The production crews are. While production crews make movies, they don’t make the decisions to make movies.
When Hollywood leaves Hollywood
The studios have much to lose, little to gain by relocating, especially when they can just fly a director and cast to a city with built-in crews. There’s no immediate reason for that infrastructure to move. Still, it’s easy to see the cracks forming in Hollywood’s golden façade. There’s hope for Louisiana as a major film hub, if not themajor film hub.
Ellis says, “I really think Louisiana is setting itself up to be a long-lasting, important film hub along with New York, Miami and Toronto.”
Kornhauser points out the ever-changing infrastructure of film distribution, citing production companies like Court 13 — the one responsible for the Oscar-nominated, Louisiana-set-and-filmed Beasts of the Southern Wild — and local comedy company The New Movement*, begun by Chris Trew and Tami Nelson.
The former forewent trained actors by casting a local baker and a young student as the leads in the acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild. The latter, meanwhile, trains local talent much like the Upright Citizens Brigade or Second City might and then creates web series such asSunken City or the New York Times-featured My Purse. My Choice, by comedy troupe rude.
Neither company is a threat to the monolith of Hollywood, but Kornhauser cites both as proof that the inevitable new distribution models could change the status quo. She compares the film industry to the music and publishing industries and points out that, were the film industry ever to mirror those in terms of losing control of distribution (which it arguably already is), there’s no reason why smaller companies couldn’t take over.
And New Orleans is vibrant with creation.
“The more you have going on, the more people will start to create their content,” Kornhauser says. "New Orleans is a very good place to get training as an [assistant director] and jump over to something else.”
For now, production junkies like Blaum will move to Louisiana, while aspiring creatives like Kamin head out to Los Angeles. But, for the first time in film’s history, those creatives might have sights set on Louisiana for the long-term.
“There's an idea in New Orleans that it's a place where dreams come true, and Hollywood used to have that,” Kamin says. “But the community in New Orleans really supports that idea, and that's why I believe it's going to persist and thrive."
Added Kamin, “New Orleans is anyone's ball game.”