It may have been a blockbuster year at the box office, but 2009 was a dud for local film and TV production.
On-location filming in Los Angeles sank 19% last year compared with 2008, the steepest year-over-year decline since tracking began in 1993, according to FilmL.A. Inc., the nonprofit group that handles film permits for the city and parts of the county.
The production sector -- a major employer and key component of L.A.'s local economy -- was buffeted on several fronts. These included the recession, which led to a decline in film, TV and commercial shoots; the ongoing exodus of production from the region; and the long-term effects of a contract dispute with actors, which caused financing for independent features to dwindle.
Hardest hit was feature film production, which had been steadily falling over much of the last decade as L.A. lost jobs to Canada and, increasingly, other states such as New Mexico, Louisiana and Michigan that offer tax credits and rebates to filmmakers.
California's newly adopted film tax credit program helped to blunt the downturn, with production activity increasing by double digits in the second half of the year. About 50 productions qualified to receive about $100 million in tax credits since the state program began this summer.
Among those, 10 were feature films shot locally that would not have otherwise been made in California, according to FilmL.A.
Nonetheless, the uptick wasn't enough to keep features from falling 30% for the year. Feature films accounted for 4,976 permitted production days (defined as a crew's permission to film a single project at a single location over a 24-hour period), the lowest level since 1993 and less than half what it was a decade ago.
The effects of so-called runaway production have prompted the City Council and mayor to push for more incentives to keep filming in L.A. The city has taken steps to increase the availability of parking spaces and power nodes downtown for generators and is weighing a sales tax incentive for filmmakers. Officials are also considering forming a film commission to promote the local industry.
While citing the "benefits of California's film incentive program," FilmL.A. head Paul Audley said the data underscored the need for further measures to help spur the local industry.
The report, Audley said in a statement, "reinforces the need for the positive steps being taken by the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to attract more filming to the city . . . . With an industry as mobile and responsive as ours, enhanced efforts to improve the environment for filming will pay immediate dividends and help regain our lost market share."
Television, the largest sector of the production industry, also had a difficult year, with production days falling 17% to 15,933. That drop reflected fewer TV pilots shot in 2009, as well as a decline in reality TV programs, which surged the prior year as the networks relied upon the format to fill holes in their schedule created by the 2008 writers strike.
On-location filming for TV dramas fell as networks saved money by shooting more on soundstages. NBC's decision to move former "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno to prime-time TV, thereby making less room on its schedule for scripted shows, reduced production. NBC's move misfired and the network plans for Leno to return to late-night TV.
Commercial production also fell in 2009, with production days declining 12% to 5,292 as advertisers scaled back spending because of the recession. That was the lowest level since 2000, when actors who work in commercials went on strike. In a bright spot, however, commercial activity picked up in the second half of the year as the economy showed signs of recovering.