Workers on the set of the new CBS show "Vegas" in Santa Clarita.… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)
The five broadcast television networks will be rolling out 23 new one-hour dramas for the upcoming season. That would normally be good business for Hollywood's hometown industry — with bookings for soundstages and plenty of work for the costumers, camera operators and caterers needed to put a show on the air.
But not this year. Just two of the 23 new fall and midseason shows will be shot in Los Angeles County, as cost-conscious producers seek tax-friendly production havens in New York, North Carolina, Georgia and other states.
The exodus has been going on for years, especially in feature film production. But television dramas such as"CSI,""Criminal Minds"and"Desperate Housewives"have long been anchors of Los Angeles' entertainment economy, helping to offset the decade-long slide in moviemaking. One 22-episode-a-year network series has a budget of $60 million and generates 840 direct and indirect jobs, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
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That economic bang is beginning to fizzle. Fewer than 10% of new network dramas this season are based in Los Angeles, down from 50% in 2010 and nearly 80% in 2005.
"The loss of hourlong dramas is very significant," said Kevin Klowden, director of the California Center at the Milken Institute, noting that a typical drama shoots for eight to nine months, compared with just six to eight weeks for a film. "This is the heart of television production. If this continues, you're going to see a direct impact on the employment base of Los Angeles."
Though L.A. still hosts the bulk of new half-hour comedies and reality shows, dramas are more prized because they use bigger crews and have bigger budgets. That translates to more spending in the local economy.
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Repercussions from the downturn are being felt across the local film and TV industry, putting the squeeze on prop houses and other businesses that rely on production and creating growing hardship for the grips, location managers and other crew members who are finding it harder to get work in the entertainment capital of the world.
David Henke is one of them. For most of his career, the 52-year-old location manager rarely went more than a month without a job. The Sylmar resident earned more than $100,000 a year working on such TV shows as"Nip/Tuck"and "Deadliest Warrior."
But Henke hasn't worked in more than a year, squeaking by on unemployment checks and what's left of his retirement savings.
"Everything has gone out of town," he said.
Like many in Hollywood, Henke has family members who are also in the business, and they're hurting too.
His wife, Carol, who runs a film location business, was forced to close her office after receipts dropped from $300,000 in 2010 to $40,000 last year. And Henke's brother-in-law, Cliff Rogers, a longtime production supervisor and producer, has been jobless for a year.
Rogers, 60, who began his career working for the late TV producer Aaron Spelling, moved to Georgia last year to work on the drama"Necessary Roughness" but lost his job when new producers came in and hired a different crew. When he returned to Los Angeles, he found there was no work.
"The bank foreclosed on my house in April, I declared bankruptcy a year ago, [and] I'm living in my mother-in-law's house," said Rogers, who has been joined by his two grown sons, one of them an assistant director who is also out of work. "Every time I call one of my friends, they say: 'Not right now, Cliff. We'll keep you in mind.'"
Bill Myer lost his home too, and now shares an apartment in Van Nuys with six colleagues who are in similar straits. The 52-year-old makeup artist used to earn $150,000 a year working on movies like "Cast Away" and TV series including "Baywatch."
"I'm about ready to go hit the highway, stick out my thumb and move to Louisiana just so I can go back to work," he said. "It's like Hollywood has run away from home."
Myer and others have gotten help from the Actors Fund, a nonprofit group that provides assistance to distressed entertainment industry workers. Last year, the fund awarded $1 million in emergency aid for such things as buying groceries and paying rent — about triple the amount in 2007, said Keith McNutt, director of the Western region for the fund.
"We're seeing a lot of people who just aren't making it anymore," he said.
Although precise figures are not available, some of Hollywood's below-the-line unions say at least 30% of their members are unemployed.
"The impact has been drastic on our members," said Ed Brown, business agent for Local 44 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents prop makers, set decorators and special-effects workers. "The loss of one-hour dramas has caused a major spike in unemployment because they crew so many people."