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California and the West

Vegas, Hollywood--a Match Made for the Big Screen?

Entertainment: The Nevada city and its university plan to lure more film business by adding production facilities and training crews.


LAS VEGAS — Hollywood loves to capitalize on this photogenic town, and now Las Vegas wants to capitalize on Hollywood.

Long attractive for its popular visual backdrops--the Strip, the local mountains, the expansive desert and Hoover Dam--Las Vegas has served as an expensive one-night stand for movie makers. Producers fly production crews into town, grab some footage, and run back to California.

Typical is the new CBS series "C.S.I.," about Las Vegas crime scene investigators. Apart from backdrop shots and a few scenes set in casinos, the show films much of the action in Valencia.

It's time, locals say, for Hollywood to develop a long-term relationship with Las Vegas--and it's grooming itself for the courtship.

In the long term, that will include developing local sound stages and full-blown production facilities. Those efforts have been hit-and-miss in recent years.

But in the meantime, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, announced Thursday it is launching a program to train behind-the-camera film production crews. The ultimate goal is to provide producers with trained locals to serve as everything from art directors and makeup artists to assistant editors and assistant camera operators.

Las Vegas can already field one or two crews, thanks to local freelancers, but is unable to support several film projects at once. As a result, Hollywood usually brings its own workers or looks elsewhere.

"Los Angeles already loses runaway production to Vancouver. We want to provide that same kind of depth for Hollywood, right here," said Francisco Menendez, chairman of UNLV's film department.

The fledgling film department has grown to 200 students, from just seven in 1990.

Although most film students ultimately seek careers as directors and writers, and seek immediate jobs as production assistants, the faculty recognized a need to train production support crews for less glamorous jobs.

Last year, UNLV invited 30 students to participate in a prototype film crew program. Twenty-four graduated and most landed film production jobs, either locally or in Hollywood, Menendez said.

By word-of-mouth, the program quickly reached standing-room-only dimensions: All 50 slots for the fall semester were quickly claimed, and 30 more students are waiting to join. About half the participants are not otherwise enrolled in the university.

The program is shepherded by the UNLV staff and guest lecturers, the cost underwritten by Citibank/Citigroup and Nevada Title Co.

In time, Menendez and others hope, Las Vegas will have enough home-grown talent to staff four or five film crews, putting it on a par with Vancouver, a popular destination for Hollywood producers.

Though Las Vegas can't compete with the financial incentives offered to Hollywood by the Canadian government, or the favorable currency exchange rate, Las Vegas does beat Vancouver on other fronts, including climate and proximity to Los Angeles.

Among the big boosters of the UNLV program is Andrew Tsao, who has directed episodes of "Friends," "Home Improvement," "The Michael Richards Show" and other comedies, and is a frequent guest lecturer at UNLV's film classes.

"It makes a big difference when, if you're thinking of filming in Las Vegas, you know there are crews there, rather than wondering who has to be brought in," he said. "It makes everything easier--finding locations, moving equipment, getting around in traffic, things that are taken for granted in Los Angeles because we already know the area."

The UNLV program is also supported by the city's nonprofit Entertainment Development Corp., which was established two years ago to market Las Vegas as camera-ready.

With that film agency, "I can make just one call, and they'll line up locations, housing, equipment rentals, insurance and crew logistics," Tsao said. "Before, I'd need an associate producer to sit on the phone for a week to line it all up."

Developing local film crews is a logical step for Las Vegas "because we're already the entertainment capital of the world in many ways," said Carol Harter, president of UNLV. "But we need to develop a core of professionally expert people.

"I wouldn't say we're going to be the next USC film school," she said, "but we have aspirations to create a major program here."

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