County's fall location lensing droops

Hollywood’s long-rumored slowdown is no myth.

The Entertainment Industry Development Corp. released figures Monday showing a sharp fall in location production in Los Angeles County in September and October.

Industry observers cited a strong dollar — which makes shooting abroad more attractive — and the Asian economic crisis as factors in the slowdown, which is affecting feature production more than other segments of the industry. A glut of features in the market, and a corresponding retrenchment, are also seen as contributing to the drop.

The figures issued by the EIDC, a local government agency that issues permits for location shooting, do not reflect production on studio lots, although most soundstages seem considerably less busy than they were last year, when space was hard to come by.

Location shooting was down 25.6% in September compared to the same month last year; October was only slightly better, at 18.1%. The fall numbers are precipitously lower than those shown for the summer: In August, the figure was just 7.7% down from last year, while July was up 3.3%.

Year-to-date drop

For the year so far, location days in L.A. County are down 5.5% from the first 10 months of 1997.

“Things are slow,” said EIDC president Cody Cluff. Nevertheless, he described September’s figures as “an aberration” and said October “gives a better picture” of industry activity as a whole.

Cluff also saw bright spots in the television arena, where overall location production was up in September before dropping again in October. The situation was reversed in commercials shooting, which was markedly higher in October than in September.

“Because of the strong dollar,” Cluff said, “a lot of movies-of-the-week and miniseries have all gone to Canada,” a country that is attracting business not only from L.A. but from location spots in places such as Arizona, Utah and Seattle. Tax credits in Ontario and British Columbia add to the incentives.

The powerful U.S. currency is also providing impetus for shooting in previously prohibitive places like Europe, where picturesque locales are suddenly somewhat more affordable.

Shooting days

In addition to the problem of runaway productions, many companies have slashed budgets on films that are staying home, which translates into fewer shooting days. A film budgeted between $80 million and $100 million, for example, might shoot for 90 days or more, whereas a movie slated for around $40 million or $50 million could have a shooting schedule of less than 50 days.

Some of the slowdown can also be attributed to the fact that studios are responding to a crowded market by choosing their projects with more circumspection.

Additionally, the post-summer decline comes after a somewhat higher pace early this year when some films were rushed into production because of a strike threat by the Screen Actors Guild. MGM, for example, finished months ahead of its initial schedule.

Although most of the major studios were uncertain about specifics, stage occupancy at Universal Studios is running at about 70%, said Jim Schwab, manager of production services. “We’re doing OK,” he said, acknowledging “a slight drop.”

TV sale factor

Universal’s downward trend is mostly in TV shooting, primarily because of the sale of Universal Television to Studios USA. Out of seven pilots produced by the new owner, only two were picked up; one of them, Castle Rock’s “Movie Stars,” has yet to begin shooting.

Three other shows shooting at Universal, “Sliders,” “Brother’s Keeper” and “Payne,” began lensing much later than the usual August production start, mostly for budgetary reasons.

At the Screen Actors Guild, Hollywood exec director Leonard Chasman said the industry needs to “keep an eye on the figures to determine whether it reflects a shift to other geographical areas for productions or whether there is an overall decline in production activity.”

He said 1997 was “an inordinately high year” for film production in Hollywood. “I think it would be unrealistic to expect that level to be maintained indefinitely.”

Chasman conceded that it’s a buyers’ market for filmmakers in search of sound stages. “Studio space,” he said, “is freeing up now as opposed to a year ago, when you couldn’t find space, and that does indicate a decline.”

At the other actors’ union, the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, which has 30,000 members, associate exec director Pamm Fair said the drop in location numbers “doesn’t really affect us,” since most work in daytime shows and primetime sitcoms.

“We’ve got more members working than ever in L.A.,” she said.

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