The majority of network drama pilots still shoot in L.A. — but barely.
Of the 80-plus plus pilots made this season, only 48, or about 55%, shot in Los Angeles. Major alternative production centers like New York and Canada got their fair share, with Gotham garnering 11 pilots (12%) and cities north of the border getting eight (9%).
Plenty went to other locales, including NBC’s “Reconstruction” (New Mexico), CBS’ “Hail Mary” (Atlanta) and ABC’s “Missing” (Prague). Other states include Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, Oregon and Texas.
“Generally the decision about production locations is made by the studio,” says Barry Jossen, exec VP studio creative and production for ABC Entertainment Group. “We’re physically making the pilot and/or series.”
Jim Sharp, exec VP of production at 20th Century Fox Television, says network executives are involved in conversations about where to shoot but confirms that ultimately the studio makes the final determination.
“The primary driving force is what is best creatively for the project,” Sharp says. “Other factors obviously play into that but each project we make usually has some unique characteristics or qualities and those are looked at really, really close.”
That said, states that offer tax incentives get a leg up when it comes to consideration for pilot production.
“The biggest single driver after the creative is tax credits and production incentives,” ABC’s Jossen says. “We can better manage our costs through their utilization.”
Tim Iacofano, a producer on Fox’s “Locke & Key” pilot that filmed in Pittsburgh, says location selection is often driven by the best financial deal. “We only seriously looked at locations with tax incentives,” he says, noting that “Locke & Key” is set in an old, haunted mansion. “Pittsburgh was chosen because the architecture we needed for this house was found there.”
Kevin Berg, exec VP of production for CBS Network Television Entertainment Group, says tax incentives are an important consideration because they allow a production to get the most bang for its buck.
“It’s not about spending, it’s about how much you get on screen for that amount of money,” Berg says, adding that if a location is too far afield or requires bringing in a lot of crew and equipment, travel costs can burn up tax-incentive savings.
Joe Davola executive-produces CW’s “One Tree Hill,” which has filmed in Wilmington, N.C., since its pilot episode. “I know (WB exec) Jordan Levin suggested Wilmington because they’d done ‘Dawson’s Creek’ there,” Davola says. “We looked at Charlotte but the great thing about Wilmington is they’d just finished ‘Creek’ so there was a crew in place, they have the Screen Gems studios and the location was perfect for the story.”
For ABC’s “The River,” about the search for an explorer who’s gone missing on the Amazon River, the studio considered filming in Hawaii and Central and South America but settled on Puerto Rico.
“We needed a navigable river, a tropical environment and two picture boats,” Jossen says. “We were able to find everything we needed in Puerto Rico. We’d previously shot the ‘Off the Map’ pilot there and there were production incentives there as well, so it had the right combination.”
Although there are upsides to filming outside studio centers, far-flung locations also create challenges. Actors may agree to shoot a pilot away from where they live but not a series, which takes up far more time.
“There are times when it’s just not practical, when an actor or actress has young children and it’s not easy to commit to doing a series in another location where we may be for five or six years,” Jossen says.
It’s often easier to shoot a pilot and series outside a production center if a show has younger actors in lead roles. “All the shows I make are with young adults who don’t have any roots yet,” Davola said. “Most of the people on my shows are in their early 20s or fresh out of college so it’s not like they left a life behind.”
Iacofano, a Cleveland native, says he’s impressed by the Midwestern work ethic of crews when he’s shot in Chicago and Pittsburgh. “The workforce in Pittsburgh is a very motivated group, which is not to say they aren’t in Los Angeles, which has some very talented professionals who are also motivated. But when you work in a place like Pittsburgh and realize the future of the industry in your town is at stake, it’s different,” he says. “It’s a little extra something.”
While government officials and community members in production centers like L.A. and New York may be accustomed to — and sometimes antagonistic toward — having productions take over parts of town, a pilot or series filmed elsewhere is often a novelty that’s more likely to be greeted with open arms.
Still, equipment and prop rentals may be limited in non-production center cities, requiring crews to bring more with them.
Then there’s the issue of time zones. For Fox’s rampaging-dinosaurs family adventure series “Terra Nova,” Sharp noted the time difference between Los Angeles and Australia complicates matters, particularly when it comes to script changes.
Plus, casting in other countries is a challenge because it takes several weeks to get actors a work visa.
“We have to carve out more time for people to travel and get their bodies turned around so they’re prepared to shoot,” says Sharp, who initially pushed to shoot “Terra Nova” in Orlando, Fla., which was ultimately deemed too flat and lacking in interesting terrain.
Jossen says the challenges that come with distant location shoots are par for the course for film crews. “Film production people are highly resourceful by necessity. We shrug, we get frustrated, and then we figure out how to make it work.”
Tax credits driving shows to hit road | Producers pay premium for first-time glitz | The lure of incentives | Watering holes and other location delights