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Hollywood's New Backlot? The U.S.

Louisiana and other states are winning filmmakers' business through tax incentives.

August 17, 2005|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Danny Retz has been a Hollywood film editor for nearly three decades. His 50 features include "RoboCop," "Cutthroat Island" and "Collateral Damage." For the last several years, though, steady work has proven elusive.

He longed for a place where work was plentiful and life was affordable.

"I don't have any more wiggle room left," Retz said a few days before he boarded a plane for Louisiana, where he was born 57 years ago. "I was bleeding money."

Retz wasn't returning to New Orleans just to be close to good food and extended family. He was chasing Hollywood.

For an increasing number of people working in the movie industry, some of the best jobs no longer carry the "Made in California" label. Over the last two decades, scores of movies have left town in search of the cheapest labor, weakest currencies and best financial incentives. At first, producers fled to Canada. Then they set off for more distant lands, such as Australia, England and, more recently, Eastern Europe.

But the hottest front in the production wars these days is much closer to home, as California finds itself competing with almost every state in the union. Thanks to an array of tax incentives offered from Rhode Island to New Mexico, screenwriters are recasting their plots to accommodate new locales, producers are learning new math to stretch budgets and Hollywood has settled into a multiple-time-zone way of life.

Hollywood remains the place where most movies are conceived and financed. And the economic and emotional effect of so-called runaway production has been blunted by a fresh wave of television shows made in town -- TV production has surged 64% since 2000, as local movie filming fell 8%.

But there's no masking the fact that moviemaking has turned into part of the national economy. The Hollywoodization of America, according to the U.S. Census, has turned into an industry that generates $9.3 billion in American salaries each year.

"I'm sitting here at my office at Warner Bros.," said Joel Silver, who produced the "Matrix" movies. "And I'm looking at big buildings and soundstages and all the things you need to make a movie, but what do I have to do? Get on a plane and fly thousands of miles so I can look at big buildings and soundstages and all the things you need to make a movie. And why? Because of costs. It all comes down to costs."

One of Silver's upcoming movies, the Hilary Swank thriller "The Reaping," is being filmed in Louisiana.

The drive to lure Hollywood across state lines is tearing down ideological boundaries: Louisiana's popular incentives were drafted by a conservative Republican state legislator, and were being hawked to the industry by a liberal lieutenant governor.

Even within California, a push for similar incentives is being supported by both the studios and the Hollywood labor unions, who on almost every other issue sit on opposite sides of the table.

The profusion of incentives across the country, which have even more value with the fall of Canadian exchange rates, has created a politically prickly challenge for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Having made a fortune in the movies, the $20-million-a-movie actor must now convince the state's lawmakers and taxpayers that Hollywood needs -- and deserves -- a financial handout.

"People say, 'Why should I give a tax credit to these rich studios?' I hear that all the time," said Amy Lemisch, film commissioner for California, which has virtually no financial incentives. She has been lobbying for a bill that would mimic other state incentives, which could surface in the current legislative session. The bill's chances could be helped by a new study due soon that tracks how much tax revenue and jobs a TV show or movie generates. That effect, Lemisch says, is not always easy to see.

But it's highly visible in the Deep South.


Louisiana has been home to Zydeco music, Cajun spices and po-boy sandwiches. Now it's also where you'll find Manhattan, Milwaukee and Orange County.

The story line for "Just My Luck" unfolds in New York City, but the movie was filmed almost entirely in Louisiana. The movie "Mr. 3000" is about a Milwaukee Brewers baseball player. It, too, was largely made in Louisiana. Although the plot for "Big Momma's House 2" develops in Orange County, the movie was shot for only three weeks in Southern California, with the other eight weeks in and around New Orleans.

The upcoming Denzel Washington thriller "Deja Vu" was originally set in New York. But in the current screenplay revisions, Long Island Sound has been replaced by the Mississippi River, and a bomber hiding out in the Long Island Pine Barrens is now holing up in the Louisiana bayou.

Director Donald Petrie estimated "Just My Luck" saved about 20% on its budget by relocating to the state. The Louisiana incentives helped movie production spending soar to more than $125 million last year, up from $3.9 million in 2002, the state says. Along the way, an estimated 3,000 jobs were created.

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