No certainties for pols in prod’n roulette

AS THE DEVASTATING images of Hurricane Katrina’s impact make clear, life is full of uncertainties, of acts of God, of events that defy reassuring logic. It’s a note worth passing along to some California politicians, who are behaving as if they want their legislative endeavors to come with guarantees.

Lately, there has been considerable hand-wringing over how to keep production in the cash-strapped Golden State, and whether state-issued tax breaks will truly motivate studios to stay home, as opposed to fleeing to New York, Louisiana (which has made significant inroads in attracting production and must now rebound from the hurricane’s impact on the region), Canada, North Carolina or anywhere else where English is spoken, albeit just barely.

Both Democrats and California’s Republican governor (maybe you’ve heard of him) have expressed support for such action, while naysayers trot out the charge that tax incentives for Hollywood are nothing more than corporate welfare. Besides, as the Los Angeles Times’ editorial page recently asked, “What if the feature would have been made largely in California anyway? … It’s hard to imagine how a credit could be designed to reward only those features that were in danger of becoming ‘runaway productions.’ ”

The not entirely satisfying response is that such calculations require a degree of risk. There will always be someplace — a Southern state, an Eastern European country, whatever — willing to make it cheaper for studios to film there, so producers invariably balance the convenience of sleeping in their own beds, artistic considerations and good citizenship against saving a few bucks.

In that respect, production roulette mirrors the machinations of the industry, only in reverse. Studio and network chiefs preach fiscal austerity, but there’s always somebody in desperate need of a hit willing to pry the vault open. The only term I remember from my Econ 10 class is “supply and demand,” but that’s the bottom line (OK, make that two terms).

THIS NEGOTIATING POSITION leaves California officials, already wrestling with a budget crisis, understandably frustrated. They can give breaks to Hollywood and still lose production to cheaper locales, or forgo concessions and possibly sacrifice more — along the way appearing indifferent to many constituents, the state’s plentiful ranks of below-the-line personnel and scale actors struggling to find work.

In case anyone doubts that the pain of “runaway production” is real, try writing a story about the grand time everyone is having in Vancouver, as I did a few years ago after spending several pleasant days in Hollywood North that always seemed to conclude at the Sutton Place Hotel bar. A wave of angry letters from production designers, location managers and the like followed, detailing the difficulties they were having meeting mortgage payments and keeping their kids in school.

Such anecdotal evidence does have a place in this discussion, since numerical data are easily manipulated and misrepresented. Nevertheless, there’s a strong case to be made that simply doing nothing is shortsighted.

“You have to look at what’s worked for other states,” said Steve MacDonald, president of L.A.’s Entertainment Industry Development Corp., which seeks to facilitate production within the city. Although no one can definitively track the benefits of incentives, he added, “the proof in the pudding” can be seen in what’s been accomplished elsewhere.

All I know is that on a recent jaunt for the dog’s morning constitutional, I was pleased to see the big trucks and dawdling crew that could only mean a film or TV show was shooting in the neighborhood. Living in the San Fernando Valley, it’s nice to see that local residents are working, especially when the production in question isn’t porn — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

IT’S NO MYSTERY why there would be resistance to tax breaks for Hollywood, especially from those who view the town as a cultural Sodom and Gomorrah and haven for unsavory accounting practices; still, it’s impossible to insist on hard-and-fast promises, ultimately, from a business in which virtually every bet amounts to rolling the dice and praying.

In case William Goldman’s famous adage never made its way up Interstate 5 to Sacramento, it’s been said here that nobody knows anything. But there is such a thing as an educated guess.

“You cannot create something that’s perfect,” MacDonald said. “But the fact is you have to compete.”

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