Big breaks by the bayou

Crews, studios and tax credits lure shoots to Louisiana

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“Our goal is not to be like Los Angeles. We want to be our own Los Angeles,” says Sherri McConnell, Louisiana’s director of entertainment industry development. Judging from the bonanza of big-time film and TV shoots landing in the Bayou State, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if L.A. itself would like to be a bit more like the other LA, where les bons temps continue to roll for the state’s incentivized production biz.

One of the first states out of the gate to offer lucrative tax breaks to entice Hollywood shoots, Louisiana is firmly entrenched just behind L.A. and New York as the country’s third-busiest entertainment production center. Over the past 18 months, in the wake of a 5% hike in its transferable tax credit to 30%, the state has hit a new plateau, attracting a slew of big-budget shoots.

Recent hits “The Expendables,” starring Sylvester Stallone, and “Red,” with Bruce Willis, both lensed in Louisiana. Television shows filming there include HBO’s “Treme,” now starting work on its second season; Disney Channel’s hit “Imagination Movers”; and MTV’s 24th season of “The Real World,” set in New Orleans.

Another big catch: Warner Bros.’ $150 million comicbook tentpole “The Green Lantern,” which took over the city’s new studio complex, Second Line Stages, for eight months beginning in January.

Already in prep at the Fox Studios in Sydney, the production abruptly departed when a sudden sharp rise in Australia’s currency pumped up its budget by $20 million. After considering alternatives, the producers gave New Orleans the nod — not long after Louisiana raised its film tax incentives last July. “They took a big chance coming here,” says Second Line owner and developer Marie Brennan. “We were a big, messy construction site with mud everywhere when we rented to them, but everything was finished by the time they arrived.”

The success of the shoot has set off a swirl of rumors that Christopher Nolan’s “Batman 3” will set up shop at Second Line next April.

Meanwhile, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” the latest installment in Summit Entertainment’s franchise, began filming in September at the just completed Raleigh Celtic Media Center, situated on 23 acres in Baton Rouge. And Universal’s sci-fi actioner “Battleship” began principal photography at the facility in mid-October.

Not all the films are budget-busters. “Trespass,” starring Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman as a kidnapped husband and wife, has been filming in Shreveport, situated far from the gulf. (The town grew as a production center after Katrina hit New Orleans.)

Given all this activity, Louisiana is closing in on a record-shattering year. Through mid-October, 126 projects had already applied for permits to shoot in the state, up from 105 for all of 2009.

The numbers aren’t all in yet, but Chris Stelly, head of the state’s film and TV office, estimates in-state spend for all of 2010 will be $807 million, a significant uptick over last year’s total of $495 million. Overall budgets for the films and TV projects in which some or all of the shoot takes place in the Bayou State should hit $1.3 billion. That would be up by over 80% from 2009, highlighting the increase in the magnitude of the productions choosing to film in Louisiana this year.

Last year started sluggishly for Louisiana, partly because of producer uncertainty over the future of the state’s then-25% tax credit program, which was scheduled to be whittled down to 20% in 2011 and 15% in 2012.

Instead, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state Legislature reversed course and agreed to boost the incentive to 30% so Louisiana could stay competitive with states like Michigan, which had put in place a 42% rebate. In addition, the program has no phase-out provision, and there are no caps on the size of a project that can qualify for the tax credits. Plus, the state agreed to buy back tax credits at 85¢ on the dollar, putting a floor under the market.

“Enhancing the incentive had a big effect, not just with respect to ‘Green Lantern,’ but for a lot of other productions that started flooding into the state,” says William French, head of New Orleans-based Film Production Capital, which helps projects that already have qualified for tax credits get interim financing. “The dip Louisiana had been experiencing disappeared and activity suddenly amped up, and now we’re heading to a record-breaking year.”

And while other states may be coming in with higher incentives percentages, they don’t have enough studio infrastructure and depth of crew to justify the available tax benefits, says Stelly.

Because spending for local hires earns a 35% tax credit (though cut from 40% in 2009), a big factor attracting shoots to the state is the presence of a large resident crew base, currently totaling some 850 below-the-line pros — nearly triple the number working in 2005, according to Mike McHugh, business agent for IATSE Local 487. Membership of Local 487 — electricians, grips, props and art department people — account for more than half of Louisiana’s crew base.

Training programs and an influx of pros from other states have powered a 20% annual increase in overall crew numbers. “We now have younger members who have worked on over 100 movies,” notes McHugh. “People are also moving from L.A. and not just joining our guild but transferring their L.A. certification, which is a big deal.”

However, a confluence of major productions all looking for crew simultaneously can cause shortages. “It’s created a tricky situation,” says Joe Incaprera, UPM on “Treme.” “I try as hard as I can to hang onto the best possible crew, but some of them can jump ship for a bigger project.”

But the state’s devotees remain loyal. Producer Peter Safran just finished two weeks of lensing on bank-heist romance “Flypaper” in Baton Rouge. It’s the fourth of his films to be shot there. “The tax credits are a big factor,” he notes. “But the reason I’ve gone to Louisiana time and again is that the crews are terrific, everyone bends over backwards to help you, it’s easy to get to from Los Angeles, and actors like to spend time there.” Safran is planning to shoot “Hours” in Louisiana next year.