Since 2002, the state of Louisiana has been positioning itself as the “other LA.” That’s the year the Louisiana state legislature passed the Louisiana Motion Picture Incentive Act, offering extremely competitive tax breaks to productions willing to shoot within the Pelican State. Since the law’s passing, the state has gone from averaging $20 million in film production a year to close to half a billion.
Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, calls Louisiana’s incentive program the “key to success” for the state’s budding film industry. “They have the most attractive incentives of any state,” says Kyser. “You’ve seen, at any one time, principal photography on five to six films going on in a week.”
Then, of course, came Katrina. As America and the world watched in horror, the storm devastated and inundated much of the proud and scenic city of New Orleans, where 80 percent of outside productions either filmed or set up production offices, according to location scout Gerard Sellers (Monster’s Ball).
“It will be years before New Orleans is completely back up,” says Sellers. “I’ve been in this business 25 years and this is a first—and I hope the last.”
Before the hurricane, New Orleans was a movie boomtown with an infrastructure capable of supporting an increasing number and variety of projects. Alex Schott, director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Film & Television Development, says sound stages have been built in Jefferson Parrish and the New Orleans suburb of Harahan along with high-definition editing suites, screening rooms and motion capture studios.
“Panavision opened a rental warehouse here,” says Schott. “We’ve had grip and lighting companies open up warehouses here. We’re seeing more and more of the seeds of a true production hub being formed.” In August, Los Angeles-based Sunset-Gower Studios announced plans to build a $20 million studio in New Orleans on the banks of the Mississippi. “It’s still under consideration, but obviously things have changed,” says CEO Bob Papazian. “Until things start to settle, until we see what’s going on in New Orleans, we’re just sitting back.”
Luckily, says Schott, the sound stages and production facilities appear to have sustained only minimal damage from the storm and could be up and running as soon as electricity and running water are restored to New Orleans.
Just as the hurricane sent tens of thousands of the city’s residents fleeing to other parts of the state and country, it also scattered New Orleans’ nascent film community. Several local production companies and film organizations, including the Louisiana Institute of Film Technology (L.I.F.T.)—co-producers of the upcoming film Waiting—moved their entire operations to Shreveport, a city of 200,000 people in northwest Louisiana about 280 miles from New Orleans. L.I.F.T. spent $1.5 million in emergency funds to move its production offices and find housing for all of its employees.
Malcolm Petal, L.I.F.T.’s CEO, is thankful that film crews are uniquely equipped to deal with crisis management and last-second scrambling. “As natural disasters go,” says Petal, “at least they give you a heads up with hurricanes.”
Still, Petal applauds his employees and crewmembers for the extraordinary lengths they went to to safeguard equipment and secure new locations for all nine projects the company had in various stages of production.
“One of my production managers was traveling around homeless with her newborn, her three-year-old and her husband, with her house under 10 feet of water—and she was out there scouting around, getting stuff done,” says Petal. Transportation crews had to brave a lawless and chaotic post-Katrina New Orleans to retrieve cameras and other equipment from its production studios in Harahan. “It was sort of hairy to get in and out of there,” says Petal. “They had to stay up all night and sleep in the cars to make sure none of the equipment got stolen or vandalized.”
For three weeks prior to Katrina’s arrival, Hollywood producer Yoram Pelman was scouting locations in and around New Orleans for Roadhouse 2: Last Call, which he’s co-producing with Sony. When the call came for evacuation, Pelman and four other team members drove 18 hours to Houston (normally a five-hour trip) to wait the storm out in a hotel. When the issues/60/images of devastation started flashing across CNN, some began to ask whether they’d really go back and film in Louisiana.
“I said, ‘We’re not going to quit,’” says Pelman. “We’re not going to move the production to Canada.” When Pelman flew back to Los Angeles, he immediately started getting calls from people pitching alternative locations. Instead, he called a meeting with an executive at Sony and told him they were going back to Louisiana to scout locations around Shreveport.
Pelman admits that Louisiana’s attractive tax credits played into his decision, “but you can get tax incentives in lots of places,” he says. “The fact is that Louisiana and other states in the country need it. Louisiana definitely needs it. I’m going to shoot [Roadhouse 2] in Louisiana and I’m going to go back.”
Pelman’s not alone. Delegates from Louisiana’s film community attended the Toronto Film Festival a week after the hurricane and found an international moviemaking community ready and willing to help. “If filmmakers want to contribute to the relief effort, a charitable donation is wonderful,” says Will French, president of Louisiana Production Capital, “but all they really have to do is what they do best—make pictures.”
French is extremely grateful to moviemakers like producer Michel Shane (I, Robot, Catch Me If You Can), who announced in Toronto his decision to move production of his movie Paranoia from Brazil to Louisiana in order to pump more dollars back into the state’s wounded economy. French says half a dozen other producers approached him at the film festival to make similar offers.
As for Louisiana’s future, Kyser says, “The situation is still in a state of flux. People are going to be watching to see how quickly the rebuilding happens.”
Disney had two big-budget productions slated to film in New Orleans before Katrina hit. Heidi Trotta, spokesperson for the studio, confirms that The Guardian, starring Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, will be filming in Shreveport, but that Deja Vu, starring Denzel Washington, will no longer be shooting in Louisiana.
Meanwhile, Schott is busy getting the word out that Louisiana is still open for business. “The incentive program is still in place,” says Schott. “Our focus right now is to keep as much business in the state as possible, and to keep as many Lousiana residents working as we can.”
French agrees. “The film industry,” he believes, “is really going to be the difference between Louisiana’s economic viability or its demise.” MM