L.A. production edges up in ’99

Commercials, student pix on rise

Off-lot entertainment production in Los Angeles County edged up 1.66% in 1999, partially reversing the 4.23% slide in 1998 despite significant declines in feature film and television activity, a report released Thursday showed.

Year-end figures compiled by the Entertainment Industry Development Corp. gave a mixed picture at best with impressive gains in commercials (6.8%) photo shoots (29.2%) and student films (23.9%) offsetting decreases of more than 8% each in the key categories of features and television. Production days, the measure used by the EIDC, fell by 1,016 to 10,526 in film and by 906 to 10,279 in TV.

Morrie Goldman, EIDC’s vice president of communications, said the decreasing production of locally based features and TV underscored the twin downbeat trends of tighter studio budgeting and the ongoing flight of productions to less expensive locales. And as a result, he noted, this year is likely to generate similar levels of local activity in film and TV to those of 1999.

“We are continuing to see a flattening out in feature films for a variety of reasons,” Goldman said. “We think it’s mostly due to cost reductions at the studio level.”

Local feature activity had been on track to fall 15% through the first eight months of the year but then picked up in the September-November period before declining again in December — 763 production days as compared with 853 in December 1998.

Runaway factors

Off-lot TV production continues to be hurt by the loss of telefilms to lower-cost locations such as Vancouver and Toronto, although a 19% jump in December’s activity to 800 days prevented 1999’s overall decline from reaching double figures. “We are continuing to see erosion in movies-of-the-week because their margins are so thin,” Goldman noted. “That’s what is most susceptible.”

Goldman noted that the EIDC numbers do not reflect the current strong levels of TV production on local studio sound stages, but added that upcoming negotiations between advertising agencies and the Screen Actors Guild could lead to a slowdown this year if the talks do not go smoothly.

Dubious report

The EIDC’s report comes six months after the release of a report commissioned by SAG and the Directors Guild of America showing that runaway production from the United States created $2.8 billion in direct losses and $10.3 billion in negative econmic impact in 1998 — figures that were aggressively disputed by Canadian officials.

The report, authored by the Monitor Co., also calculated that production flight reduced the number of U.S. entertainment industry jobs by more than 60,000 “full-time equivalent” positions during the 1996-98 period. Representatives of the unions said Thursday that the latest report by the EIDC, which handles about 80% of the off-lot production permits issued in the county, is another indication that the trends highlighted in the Monitor survey remain problematical.

“It’s fairly clear that we are seeing a continuing decline in industry employment, which, of course, also negatively impacted countless support services and ancillary business which rely on local production,” said SAG spokeswoman Katherine Moore. She noted that the falling levels of TV and film activity have come despite substantial efforts by the EIDC to streamline the permitting process in recent years.

DGA spokesman Chuck Warn said reduced local film and TV activity was a troubling development. “These substantial declines are a matter of grave concern to DGA members, the entire production community and the many small businesses whose health is inexorably linked to film and TV production,” he added.

The final 1999 total of 46,410 production days is 2.6% below the 1997 high of 47,669 days but 78.5% above the 1994 total. Local production soared by 27.2% in 1995 and 29.4% in 1996 to hit 43,982 days.

Proposed legislation

To combat runaway production, SAG and DGA have supported a campaign by the 10-month-old Film and Television Action Committee to push for state legislation that would provide tax credits to California-based TV and film productions. Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Glendale/Burbank) recently delivered petitions with an estimated 80,000 signatures to Gov. Gray Davis to encourage him to support Senate Bill 756, a measure authored by Wildman that provides a 10% tax refund on labor costs.

Davis failed to mention the issue during Wednesday evening’s state-of-the-state address but Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who authored a companion bill last year, said the runaway production issue is far from dead since Davis avoided discussing any issues of commerce .

“I don’t feel hopeless about the runaway production issue,” she said. “Our job is to keep the issue in front of the governor by pointing out the magnitude of the problem and that we have proposed a solution that can work.”

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