Shawn Hatosy and Ben McKenzie in a scene from the TNT show "Southland." (Doug Hyun / TNT )
Box office revenues are down, but film crews are having a good year on the streets of Los Angeles.
Overall film production activity in Los Angeles jumped 18% in the first quarter, mostly the result of a flurry of low-budget movies, sitcoms and television pilots.
Location filming for all categories of production generated 13,361 production days in the first three months of this year, compared with 11,360 days a year earlier.
That marks the second consecutive quarter of double-digit gains for location filming in the L.A. region, according to a report from FilmL.A. Inc. the nonprofit group that handles film permits for the city and the county.
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The data, considered an important barometer of economic activity in L.A.'s entertainment economy, track filming on streets and noncertified soundstages but does not include production on major studio lots.
The figures brought a welcome but cautious response from film industry officials who have seen a long-term exodus of film and TV work from California.
"One quarter can't undo all the troubling declines we've experienced, but we're certainly encouraged to see things moving in the right direction," said Paul Audley, president of FilmL.A.
There was some reason for optimism, especially in the television sector. After a year of steep losses for on-location production, the first quarter saw double-digit gains across nearly all categories of television.
In particular, the report suggests this year's pilot season could rebound after a bleak 2012.
Production of television pilots — the initial episode of a proposed TV series — jumped 38%. That's a notable improvement over a year earlier, when L.A. saw a sharp falloff in its share of pilots because of competition from New York and other cities competing for Hollywood's business. Last year, only 22 one-hour drama pilots were produced locally, with L.A. accounting for just 29% of all pilots produced for the 2012 pilot season, down from 63% in 2007.
Some networks that previously filmed most of their pilots outside of California are filming more pilots locally, partly because the shows are based in L.A. or in Washington, D.C., which does not have a tax credit. L.A. also has plenty of experience playing the nation's capital, most famously in the long-running show "The West Wing," which used Washington exteriors but was filmed on soundstages and locations in Los Angeles.
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"It's been a good quarter, and it's nice to see some pilots return," Audley said. "We'll just have to see what gets picked up."
Sitcoms had a similarly busy quarter, posting a 37% gain in location filming. Web-based TV filming increased 35% in the first quarter. TV dramas jumped 22%, a notable turnaround from a year earlier, when location filming for TV dramas fell 20%.
The upswing this year, however, reflects not an influx of new shows but an increase in activity from existing dramas, especially the TNT crime drama "Southland," which films heavily on location here and had an unusually busy quarter, Audley said.
Feature filming activity also posted its second consecutive quarterly increase, with a 26% jump in production days. A small share of the movies, 13%, received California film tax credits. Most of the activity, however, came from lower-budget independent movies that don't have the economic effect of large studio movies, which mostly film outside California.
After reaching a record level in 2012, commercial filming in L.A. slowed in the first quarter, with activity virtually unchanged from a year earlier, according to the FilmL.A. report.
Where the cameras roll: Sample of neighborhoods with permitted TV, film and commercial shoots scheduled this week. Permits are subject to last-minute changes. Sources: FilmL.A. Inc., cities of Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Rancho Palos Verdes and Santa Clarita. Thomas Suh Lauder / Los Angeles Times
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