Year off to great start for film

Advocate business writer
April 02, 2012

On a recent morning, a nicely-dressed woman was wandering the honeycomb of hallways and sound stu

dios in the O’Connor Building on the Celtic Media Centre campus in Baton Rouge. Over one shoulder was a well-stocked baby tote, while she cradled a plump, barefoot infant outfitted in a curiously filthy T-shirt and diaper.

The baby happened to be one of the younger actors on set that day working on the movie “The Host,” a $44 million film project that plans to spend about $33 million in Louisiana, according to state film industry officials. The movie, based on the book of the same title by Stephenie Meyer of “Twilight” fame, is set to open in theaters next March.

It’s not clear what role the child — or any of the other disheveled-looking actors milling about — holds in the sci-fi film. Details like these are tightly guarded by film officials, who were explicit about keeping reporters off the sets.

What does seem clear is that big-budget studio pictures like these are becoming more common in the state.

“Oblivion,” the new $175 million Tom Cruise sci-fi movie is occupying four stages at Celtic and plans to spend $75 million in the state. The movie is currently shooting in New Orleans, but plans to soon return to Baton Rouge, where it will resume shooting until June, said Claire Raskind, a publicist for “Oblivion.”

“2012 is certainly off to a strong start, and we anticipate another record-breaking year for Louisiana Entertainment,” said Chris Stelly, director of Louisiana Entertainment, the division of the Louisiana Department of Economic Development that administers the state’s film tax credit incentive program. “For the first three months of this year, we are getting a lot of inquiries — more than any in past years — and interest in our state for filming.”

Last year, roughly 150 applications for movie project tax credits came through Louisiana Entertainment with an estimated instate investment of about $1.5 billion, Stelly said during a February interview.

Generally, the trend has been that during the latter and early part of the year film activity is relatively slow, said Stelly. This has not been the case this year.

“It’s too early to do a comparative analysis for what we received, because a lot of what we received in late 2011 will overflow into the new year,” Stelly said in February. “But this first quarter of the year looks to be really busy. We’ve got some big things here.”

Since the beginning of the year, the state has given initial certification for 20 movies applying for tax credits, totaling more than $250.9 million of instate investment.

Collectively, the movies have total budgets of an estimated $349.6 million. These totals do not include “Oblivion” or “The Host,” both pre-certified at the end of 2011.

In the last decade Louisiana has nurtured a blossoming film industry, evident by a stroll through the hallways of Celtic, where lawyers, accountants, insurance providers, movie producers, film equipment renters and more hold offices. For the last six weeks the Silverdraft Mobileviz, a mobile video studio, has been parked on the Celtic lot ready to begin work.

“The idea being we can take this anywhere in Louisiana, or anywhere the production community really needs us,” said Cliff Laidlaw, an engineering consultant for Silverdraft.

“We came here, really to find out what the community wanted — what the needs were — and fill those needs,” Laidlaw added.

Laidlaw isn’t the only Californian trying his luck in Louisiana. The state has seen an influx of film workers from Tinseltown as well as places like Ohio and Michigan, said Mike McHugh, business agent for the International Alliance for Theatrical and Stage Employees, Local 478, which includes Louisiana and southern Mississippi.

“The biggest phenomenon that I see nowadays, is a lot of people are moving here, from you name it,” McHugh said recently, speaking from his office in New Orleans.

“For a long time early on, it was usually just nearby people from like Texas, Georgia and Florida. But now they’re coming from all over America. And these are experienced, qualified people. A lot of California people are moving here.”

Last year, IATSE staffed 42 union film projects, which was down from a record 60 film projects in 2010.

“It was a milestone year,” said McHugh.

The reduction in the number of film projects in 2011 was mostly because of the increase in big-budget movies like the “Twilight” series, which can translate to fewer movies being made in a year, even if the level of overall activity is swelling.

“The demand for crew is going to be two and three times on a big show compared to what it is on a small show,” McHugh said. And so far this year, McHugh counted 29 union movie projects that have either wrapped or are in production. “We’re not even halfway through the year, and we’re knocking on the door of 30 shows,” he remarked. “So I’m expecting this year is going to be right back up where 2010 was, and probably exceed it.”

Will this added demand translate into shortages of qualified union workers?

“To be honest, yes, I do see a problem,” McHugh said. “But I want to elucidate on that. It’s always been a problem.”

“They just keep putting more movies than we’ve got crew in here,” he added

“We need more work force.”

Louisiana wages for union workers has crept steadily up averaging about $67,000 a year, McHugh said.

By now, nearly every job needed by the movie business can be found in the state, an indication that Louisiana has grown an indigenous film industry.

It’s what movie industry advocates refer to as “infrastructure.” But what’s still lacking — and could help to solve the work force shortages McHugh speaks of — is the academic and training arm of the industry.

“When we set up the Baton Rouge film office in 2007, everything was about physical production and that’s just one piece of the industry,” said Amy Mitchell-Smith, founder and producer of the Cienega Motion Picture Group in Baton Rouge, and the former director of the Baton Rouge Film Commission. “We’ve certainly seen a lot of that industry here because of the tax credit program. But now that we’ve got such a deep crew base, facilities like Celtic, vendors like Hollywood Trucks, this is really becoming a bonafide industry hub.

“What we don’t have is that dedicated Columbia (University) film school and what have you, so we as a community have to be very inventive about how we nurture our growing filmmaking base,” she added in remarks last week during an event hosted by the entrepreneurial group SeNSE.

At the event, local movie producers pitched their film ideas — and business credentials — to a panel of judges lead by Mitchell-Smith; Jacky Lee Morgan, producer with the post-production company Cineworks Louisiana, a subsidiary of Cineworks Digital Studios Inc.; and Daniel Lewis, CEO of Active Entertainment, a company involved in financing, producing and distributing films. The company is based in Baton Rouge with offices in Lafayette, New Orleans and Santa Barbara, Calif.

The next growth stage of the Louisiana film industry maturity should also include more Louisiana-based producers and movie financiers, said Patrick Mulhearn, director of studio operations at Raleigh Studios, the management firm for Celtic Media Centre in Baton Rouge.

“What we want to see are Louisiana investors working with Louisiana film-makers, because that way the box office stays here, not just the production dollars, but the actual returns,” Mulhearn said during a recent tour of the sprawling Celtic movie lot.

“That’s a big step. We have Louisiana investors getting serious about getting into the business.”