Louisiana sees surge in TV & film projects
NEW ORLEANS - As cast and crew of the HBO television series "Treme" filmed in the French Quarter, a warehouse elsewhere bustled with stage hands prepping for production on the Will Ferrell comedy "Dog Fight" while a helicopter prepared to take flight for the shooting of the new 3-D IMAX film, "Hidden World."
The stream of film activity this late in the year is positioning Louisiana to hit, if not exceed, last year's record of more than 100 film and TV projects, said Chris Stelly, executive director of the Office of Entertainment Industry Development, the state agency that promotes Louisiana's film, theater, music and digital media industries.
Stelly said this is also likely more film activity than in any other U.S. state outside of the entertainment hubs of California and New York.
"It's incredible," he said. "The holidays and the summer months, those are usually slower times for the film industry here, but last year and this year that hasn't been the case. What we're seeing is the filming industry stabilizing in Louisiana with a steady stream of business all year long."
Other projects filming between now and Christmas include the Mark Wahlberg action flick "Broken City" and the TV police drama "Common Law." In the new year, production is set to begin on Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained", Summit Entertainment's caper film "Now You See Me" and the Columbia Pictures drama "Maersk Alabama" starring Tom Hanks.
Louisiana accepted more than 130 applications for its tax incentive program in 2011 and hosted more than 100 film and TV projects for the second year in a row. That's about triple previous years, Stelly said. According to state figures, Louisiana had fewer than 40 projects in both 2004 and 2005, and the state saw fewer than 90 projects each year thereafter until 2009.
In 2009, the state decided to make its tax credit permanent and increase the benefits to 30 percent. Originally, the statute reduced the incentive to 20 percent with plans to eventually reduce it again to 15 percent. Stelly said the state's move has helped to steady and grow the industry.
"It sent a message that we are here to stay, that Louisiana is a reliable place to do business," Stelly said. "That was such an important thing for us. As other states began dropping off, we gave more stability to what we were doing here in Louisiana."
Since the film tax credits were introduced in 2002, movie production hubs have popped up in cities across the state, including Shreveport, Lafayette and Baton Rouge. But New Orleans continues to see most of the activity. This year 45 projects - almost half of all those filmed in the state - were shot in the New Orleans area.
Most of the projects being filmed in New Orleans have a minimum $40 million budget, said Katie Williams, director of Film New Orleans, the department under the mayor's office of cultural economy that handles film and video projects.
"Every year we're getting bigger projects with bigger budgets and higher level actors," Williams said. "It really shows the maturation of our industry."
Among the projects heading to New Orleans in coming months is "Maersk Alabama", the real-life pirate drama being directed by Oscar-nominated director Paul Greengrass. Hanks will play Capt. Richard Phillips, who was kidnapped along with his crew when his ship was hijacked by Somali pirates on its way to a Kenyan port in 2009. The film is being based on a book Phillips wrote about the rescue, "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea."
Filming is expected to begin in February, Williams said.
Production will begin on "Now You See Me" in mid-January. That film is about a team of illusionists who pull off bank heists during their performances and stars Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman, Isla Fisher, Michael Caine and Mark Ruffalo.
"Broken City" is about an ex-cop who trails the wife of New York City's mayor only to become immersed in a scandal. It stars Wahlberg, Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The film is currently in production in the New Orleans area and is due out in theaters in 2013.
Despite its successes, the film industry has not been without problems. Former state film commissioner Mark Smith pleaded guilty in 2007 to taking about $65,000 in bribes to help inflate tax credits. He served two years in federal prison. Malcolm Petal, producer of "Bug," "Factory Girl" and "Mr. Brooks," pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Smith. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
In 2007, a state law tightened oversight of the program, which provides tax credits to production companies that use goods and services while shooting in Louisiana.
Just last month, a crew member working on the set of the Paramount Pictures film "G.I. Joe 2: Retaliation" was killed in what the studio is calling an unusual accident. Paramount spokeswoman Virginia Lam said the Louisiana crew member, Michael "Mike" Huber, was killed Nov. 22 on set in New Orleans. She would not comment to The Associated Press on the circumstances surrounding his death but said the studio is fully cooperating with the investigation.
The sequel, which stars Bruce Willis, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Channing Tatum, is scheduled for release in the summer.