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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

"It's great business," said Kevin Kelly. "And when products just sit in buildings, it's not very exciting."

Inside a converted Kelly warehouse in New Orleans' Elmwood Industrial Park portable air conditioners burn through $1,500 of fuel a day, pumping additional frigid air across the sets for the "Big Momma's House" sequel, trying to keep pace with Louisiana's oppressive summer weather.

"We shed about 17% on our budget" by coming to Louisiana, said the film's producer, David T. Friendly. "And that was the difference between development hell and a green light. That's amazing."

As Friendly spoke, director John Whitesell was rehearsing a scene in which Big Momma (Lawrence) visits a luxurious spa. The spa was filled with a dozen beautiful women wearing little more than a towel, yet the Louisiana talent pool was so thin that the film's casting director had to hire women from Texas and Tennessee.

Filmmakers say that's part of the downside of relocating to the state: There aren't enough qualified people to go around.

"I've done a lot of movies in Canada and the trades are built up," said "Big Momma" production designer Craig Stearns. "It's hard to find people here. They're new, and there's a lot of competition."

It's not just personnel that's in short supply. "Big Momma's House 2" costume designer Debrae Little said she had to import everything from buttons to bluejeans from California.

The state's infamous heat and humidity means working outside can be unbearable, and thunderstorms can create ear-splitting rackets inside the uninsulated warehouses. "Glory Road" star Josh Lucas said that while filming the upcoming basketball movie in a gym, interior temperatures reached 135 degrees. "Things," Lucas said, "were starting to melt."

Adrian Staton is following the money. The actress just moved to New Orleans, convinced it was the best place to establish her career. A USC graduate, Staton had been living in South Carolina, making mostly TV commercials for local businesses such as King's Grant Golf Course in Fayetteville, N.C.

"I was thinking about moving to Los Angeles," Staton said. "But when my agent told me she was going to open a New Orleans branch, I thought it would really help me build my resume. And it's much cheaper to live here than in Los Angeles."

Since moving to Louisiana this year, Staton still has to take jobs on the side to make ends meet but has been cast in one feature film and one TV movie -- work that she previously couldn't get in Los Angeles and South Carolina. The very day she returned to New Orleans from a summer vacation, she was back on the audition circuit.

The push for tax incentives may be anchored in job creation, but civic pride has played a crucial role in putting the issue on the map. Illinois jump-started its incentive legislation soon after 2002's "Chicago" was filmed in Canada. "The embarrassment of 'Chicago' being made in Toronto brought [incentives] to everyone's attention," said Brenda Sexton, managing director of the Illinois Film Office.

New York similarly didn't get its incentive bills signed until after 2004's "New York Minute" was made in Toronto and the 2003 television movie "Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story" was filmed in Montreal.

"They never gave us a chance," Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the New York City Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, said of the Giuliani movie. She also said the Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen movie "New York Minute" left the state for Canada in "a New York minute. People wouldn't even consider New York because there wasn't a tax credit."

It's the same reason so many movies are leaving California: Even factoring in travel and hotel costs, it's often cheaper to leave the state. A June analysis conducted by the Independent Film & Television Alliance showed that a hypothetical movie that would cost $19.24 million to produce in Los Angeles would cost $17.8 million in New Mexico and $18 million in Louisiana.

"I've been trying for years to try to get [California legislators] to do something for us. And they don't seem interested," said Jim Brubaker, president of physical production for Universal Pictures. "They say they can't afford it. If California had any kind of incentive, you would never have to leave the state."

Said Silver, who produced Schwarzenegger's "Predator" and "Commando": "They are driving the industry out of the state. You have a governor who was a movie star. It doesn't make any sense. They could fix it in one minute if they wanted to -- but no one seems to want to."

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Comparing the incentives

Calculations prepared for a recent conference of film and television producers speculated about the potential money that could be saved in states with aggressive incentives. Here are the data for a hypothetical production that would cost $19.24 million to produce in Los Angeles:

*--* Total State Total production costs incentives adjusted costs Utah $19,077,649 $500,000 $18,577,649 Illinois 19,394,120 884,008 18,510,112 Louisiana 19,077,649 1,041,997 18,035,652 New Mexico 19,099,212 1,301,000 17,798,212 Florida 19,386,400 2,000,000 17,386,400

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Source: Independent Film and Television Alliance

Times staff writer Mary McNamara contributed to this report.

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