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Television, Film Production Staging a Rebound in L.A.

Sharp rise in activity surprises unions, economists and suppliers

October 11, 2002|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's no longer quiet on the set in Los Angeles.

After a painful yearlong slump, Southern California film and TV production is enjoying a surprisingly strong resurgence greater than unions, suppliers and economists expected.

The main reason is that studios have finally burned off the fat supply of films stockpiled last year as a precaution against possible strikes by actors and writers. But TV production also is surging as the advertising outlook grows healthier. Hollywood's fantasy factories are again operating at near capacity.

"We're finally seeing a return to normal," UCLA economist Chris Thornberg said.

For the first time in four years, all 30 soundstages at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank and five more at the studio's nearby ranch are booked, thanks largely to the studio's brisk TV business. Last month, shooting on the streets of Los Angeles rose 55% from a year earlier, the highest September level since 1998, according to permit agency Entertainment Industry Development Corp.

In late August, Local 600 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees compiled a 24-page job report listing 11 feature films, six one-hour dramas and seven half-hour shows being shot in the area. Last week, that same report rose to 85 pages boasting 17 movies, 34 one-hour shows and 34 half-hour programs.

Back also are the daily encounters with film shoots that were so routine for L.A. residents. Colorful makeshift signs are showing up more and more on street poles to direct crews. Streets are being shut down, snarling traffic and forcing cars to maneuver around studio trailers.

This week, the Sony Pictures sequel "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" was being filmed at the Griffith Observatory. Paramount Pictures' remake of "The Italian Job" was being shot at the Sepulveda Dam in Encino. The Harrison Ford action comedy "Hollywood Homicide" began shooting around Los Angeles. A community of lavender houses sits among the suburban Simi Valley sprawl as an outdoor set for Universal Pictures' "Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat."

"It's in full stride now," said Bob Harvey, senior vice president of worldwide sales for camera rental company Panavision Inc. in Woodland Hills.

Still unclear is whether the production recovery is a temporary spike with roots in last year's labor troubles, or whether it will have legs. Economists and unions say the latest surge appears to reflect additional production rather than any significant dent in Hollywood's 20-year battle against runaway production to cheaper locales.

In addition to competition from Canada, historically the most aggressive country at luring U.S. projects through low costs and incentives, Hollywood is increasingly shipping productions to Australia, Mexico, Ireland and New Zealand. None of the five films nominated for best picture Oscars this year was shot in Los Angeles, and only two of them in the United States.

"As long as other nations are committed to luring away motion pictures and TV producers with financial incentives, we're going to be in for a fight," said Bruce Doering, national executive director of the Cinematographers Guild.

Still, the production rebound is good news for Hollywood's blue-collar work force, marking the end of what became known as 2001's "de facto strike."

Although writers and actors settled their contracts in May and July of last year, respectively, studios had no reason to shoot new projects. Fearing a dual strike that would shutter the industry, projects were frenetically filmed in the months leading up to negotiations as part of a broad contingency plan. After the settlement, production came to a virtual halt.

"It was really dead," camera operator Jeffrey Norvet said. "Business had completely dried up. Now, there's a lot of work around."

Norvet's financial predicament was so bad that he moved to a smaller home to cut his mortgage payments. Now he's back in demand, putting in 19-hour days on such shows as NBC's "The West Wing."

Most affected in the slowdown were feature films. Because the time required to prepare and film movies is so long, studios began shooting up to a year in advance.

Earlier this year, about one-third of the 4,000 drivers, location managers and animal handlers represented by Teamsters Local 399 were unemployed. Now the union might have to admit new members to keep up with demand.

"It's an incredible change," business agent Steve Dayan said.

Job statistics reflect only modest increases. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. estimates film and TV production employment in August at 229,100. Although up 14,000 from the bottom reached in February, the number remains well below the more than 270,000 people estimated to be working in the business in Los Angeles County in 1998 and 1999.

But economists say the latest numbers lag behind the recent jump and should soon begin to reflect it.

Also benefiting from the upturn are scores of firms that supply the industry. Nearly all of the 500 makeup, wardrobe and cast trailers rented out by Star Waggons of Sylmar are spoken for. Earlier this year, the company had to store and refurbish many of its vehicles.

"We can't keep up with the demand," President Lyle Waggoner said. "It's a great relief."

Alf Jacobsen's Jet Mockups/AFTP was nearly evicted from its Pacoima facility this year when business was bad. Now Jacobsen's renting his airplane mock-ups to such TV shows as CBS' "Jag" and the independent movie "Bikini Airways."

"I couldn't even get a phone call before," Jacobsen said. "Now people are going full bore."

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE --- This story has been edited to reflect a correction to the original published text. The correct name for the observatory is Griffith Observatory, not Griffith Park Observatory. --- END NOTE ---

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