New Orleans Film Festival Lifts Local Production Economy

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and surrounding areas, devastating one of the country’s most iconic cities and temporarily halting both the flow of tourists and the production of films.

But the Crescent City — so named because it sits along a graceful curve of the Mississippi river — not only survived the blow, but has also thrived since. Thanks to Louisiana’s generous incentive program, film activity in the state has not only bounced back but has even outdone itself in volume and quality of movie and TV production. Think “Treme,” “Looper,” “The Expendables,” “21 Jump Street,” “Jurassic World” and hundreds of other projects — all shot in Hollywood South — that continue to entertain audiences around the world.

Another key element in that recovery: The New Orleans Film Festival, now in its 26th year.

“I believe that the festival has been an amazing contributor to the city’s cultural economy since Katrina,” says Carroll Morton, manager of entertainment industry development at the mayor’s office. “Since the disaster, there’s been increased national interest in the local culture.”

In this environment of renewed optimism, the film festival has worked hard to expand and diversify its programs, she notes. “Like all of the city, the cultural economy really suffered in the post-Katrina landscape, but at the same time, in many ways, that same cultural economy led the way to our recovery — both spiritually and symbolically.”

In turn, the growing film industry has provided the festival with what Morton calls “a great opportunity to leverage the level of production here, and expand the growth and reach of the festival.”

She estimates that over the past three years the city has brought in between $550 million and $600 million in film production per year. Prior to Katrina, she adds, that number was between $60 million and $70 million annually.

Last year the fest attracted over 24,000 people. The event casts a spotlight on local filming, especially as it showcases indie films shot in New Orleans.
Filmmakers from around the world attend — some 200 in 2014.

Alexa Georges, board prexy of the New Orleans Film Society, has championed the festival for years and boosted its growth. “Without the NOFS, there would be no festival, and without the great community effort there would be no comeback,” Georges says. “We’re a resilient, cultured society that loves film and music; our cultural organizations worked together post-Katrina to bring all that back.”

She cites the society’s role in collaborating with local museums and music outlets on events throughout the year, and stresses the film festival’s “key role” in the continuing recovery of the entire area. “We started out as a small, intellectual festival which brought independent films here,” she says, “and it grew quickly to become the big event it is today.”

New Orleans Film Society executive director Jolene Pinder says the fast, sustained growth of the festival “has really encouraged people to see New Orleans and Louisiana at large as an established hub of film production and creative activity.”

In her five years at the post, she adds, her focus has been to “join arms with the entertainment industry, and say, ‘Let’s grow this festival into something tremendous that warrants the kind of production coming here.’ ”

Pinder goes on to note that in just five years the festival’s number of submissions has quadrupled from 800 in 2010 to 3,400 this year — a record number and a 58% increase over the previous year. Submissions came from close to 100 countries — the most in the fest’s history.

“We as a festival have shown the world that we’re also a very successful production center,” Pinder says. “Obviously what we’re doing is working.”

For those who may still have doubts about the recovery, Morton echoes her colleagues: “We have an amazing story of survival to tell, and 10 years out from Katrina there’s been this rebirth and re-commitment to the city on all levels – not just culturally but in terms of our economy in general. It’s pretty inspiring.”

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