Hollywood is making fewer movies, film producers are having a tougher time getting financing, and cash-strapped governments around the world are facing more pressure than ever to justify tax breaks given to the film industry.
In such a climate, you might think the Locations Trade Show in Santa Monica last week would have been a ghost town. Hardly.
The 25th annual event that ended Saturday drew 241 exhibitors from 30 countries and nearly 4,000 visitors, including producers, location scouts, vendors and bankers.
That's nearly the same level of participation as last year — according to the Assn. of Film Commissioners International, which organizes the three-day trade show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
"We're deliriously happy with the attendance of exhibitors and foot traffic," said Larry Brownell, chief executive of the commission. "Compared to other industries, we've really held our own."
Reflecting the more austere climate, there were a few notable absences, including film commissions from South Africa and China (organizers cited possible visa issues), and some of booths were smaller or less lavish than before. Six Canadian film commissions were represented this year, down from 14 last year, even though the provinces of Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia all have boosted their film incentives.
But there were several new foreign participants eager to tout their locations and new film programs. Some were coming for the first time, while others were making a return after several years' absence. New attendees included Morocco, Austria, Jamaica, Croatia and even Abu Dhabi, the modern city in the United Arab Emirates.
One of the world's largest oil producers, Abu Dhabi has been seeking to diversify into other industries, such as financial services, tourism and now film. Abu Dhabi, where the dramas "Syriana" and "The Kingdom" were partially shot, launched its film program this year and was eager to spread the word in Santa Monica.
"We have modern architecture and desert islands," said David Shepheard, a former film commissioner in Britain who was hired to head the Abu Dhabi Film Commission. "Our message is: Abu Dhabi is a stable filmmaking hub in the Middle East."
On the other side of the auditorium, Serbian Film Commission Executive Director Ana Ilic was busy talking up her country's new film incentive program, which offers a rebate of up to 25% on production expenses, and scenic locales, from the banks of the Danube River to the bustling center of its capital, Belgrade.
"We have a strong, long tradition of filmmaking and more versatile locations than anywhere else,'' Ilic said. "We're 15% cheaper than Romania and 20% cheaper than Hungary, and that's without the incentives."
There were also 32 U.S. states represented (including a sizable contingent from California), down from 40 last year. Kentucky, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wisconsin were no-shows after participating in 2009, reflecting cuts in state marketing and travel budgets.
Still, major players such as New Mexico and Louisiana had large delegations. Louisiana, which recently increased its production rebate to 30% from 25%, had eight film offices represented. "The activity we're getting is tremendous,'' said Christopher Stelly, Louisiana's film industry development director. "Everyone wants to learn about the incentive program."