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Scene Stealers : Looking for panoramic crop shot? A seascape, floating golf green or military outpost? And how about cheap labor? It seems as though everyone outside Hollywood has something to offer the film and television industry.

March 06, 1994|JEFF KRAMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wearing come-hither smiles and rose-colored sunglasses, representatives from Thailand to Pittsburgh descended on Santa Monica last week, hoping to snatch a piece of L.A.'s signature film and television industry.

They had their work cut out for them. Anyone venturing outside the annual location expo quickly encountered the sparkling Pacific Ocean, temperatures approaching 80 degrees and maybe even a celebrity or two. Southern California, for all its recent misfortunes, still looked every bit the glamour capital of the universe.

"It's wonderful--I rented a convertible," a partially thawed convention official from New York marveled. But none of that was enough to keep boosters of frozen flatlands, crime-plagued cities and developing countries from making a grab for Tinseltown's tarnished crown.

Packed into the Santa Monica Convention Center, nearly 200 exhibitors spent three days at Location Expo '94, which ended Monday, pitching their locales as ideal for movie and TV production.

They insisted they came not to steal jobs from the Los Angeles area, as some local officials claimed, but to attract so-called "location" work that would be done outside of Southern California anyway. Whatever their motives, the delegates hawked their respective homes with a fervor that, despite the slick brochures and sweet financial inducements, sometimes seemed strained.

Consider the sales job confronting North Dakota, which hopes to capitalize on its status as the nation's leading sunflower and rapeseed producer.

"There are just huge fields of the stuff," enthused Kip Stolberg of the North Dakota Film Office, pointing to the potential for "panoramic crop shots" near Fargo.

He also zealously promoted a defunct missile bunker as an ideal sci-fi movie set. But as the convention wound down, it became clear that North Dakota had a visibility problem.

"People walk by here and say, 'Oh, North Dakota,' " Stolberg grumbled. "It's like an afterthought. Some of these areas are just screaming to be used."

In fact, representatives from almost every corner of the planet showed up in Santa Monica screaming to be used, which helps explain why the exposition-- sponsored by the Assn. of Film Commissioners International--is the largest event of its kind anywhere.

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The show attracted 6,000 people, many of them producer-types based on the Westside. It was one of the major events associated with the American Film Market, a nine-day spree of movie marketing that attracts 10,000 visitors annually, injecting millions of dollars into the local economy.

For Santa Monica, still recovering from the Jan. 17 earthquake, the timing couldn't have been better.

"February was a rough month," said Kathleen Rawson of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau. "With the AFM coming into town, it filled our hotels again, and they needed it. For them it was the light at the end of the tunnel."

For television and movie producers, meanwhile, the convention provides a way to scour the world for film locales without leaving the confines of the Convention Center. For localities, it's a chance to compete for a slice of a $4-billion industry that tends to be clean, prestigious and increasingly lucrative.

In Utah alone, for example, the industry now pumps $88 million a year into the state, up from $38 million just two years ago.

Los Angeles officials estimate that such location shooting represents a $1 billion drain on the local economy, but that is of little concern to far-flung convention delegates who have their own interests to consider.

"We've got some real interesting locations, like some massive hydroelectric plants on the Mississippi River," said Wendol Jarvis, of the Iowa Film Office. "There's a turbine room that just goes on forever."

Not about to be outdone by a bunch of turbines, Idaho officials boasted of numerous state treasures, including the "tallest sand dunes in the United States" and the world's only floating golf green.

A brochure on Missouri described the Show Me State as "Your 69,674-Square-Mile Back Lot," while Louisiana officials peppered their PR with complimentary grab bags of Cajun spices and other indigenous goodies.

"We're one of the few states that has really good swamps," boasted David Jones, director of the Louisiana Film Commission.

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While hyping local points of interest, many conventioneers used strangely similar phrasing. Whether it was Arkansas or Israel, places were invariably depicted as offering breathtaking mountains, dramatic deserts and modern cities--all within a short drive. And what about L.A.?

Still reeling from its much-publicized string of calamities, and from a lingering perception that it isn't business-friendly, the city was fair game. It was denied exhibit space after failing to register for the expo in time, forcing angry and chagrined city officials to pitch a promotional tent on the grounds of the adjacent county courthouse.

An "L.A. Stands Alone" banner identified the rogue exhibit, but it may as well have read, "L.A. Stands Humiliated."

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