Southern (Not Quite Fried) Hollywood

Hollywood South book cover

Back in the good old days of the #TeamNOLAFilm podcast, where I hosted four episodes of conversation amongst the best and brightest of our local film industry, Hollywood South was just beginning to make its name. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, filmmakers from California and beyond came down south, accepting our generous tax credits, to film such projects as Deja Vu and Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush biopic. These projects brought attention, money, and even some modest progression.

For every Django Unchained, however, there were dozens of homegrown storytellers, chomping at the bit to get their moment. Some have since moved on to other locations, some have stopped, and a few have achieved some recognition. Mission not completely accomplished – but moving along.

The tax credits have been a source of frustration and realization in equal measures. Other states have joined in offering similar benefits, spreading the love, so to speak, around the Southeastern region of our nation and beyond. Up and downs, sideways successes and baby steps have happened, with more to come surely.

Linda Thurman and Casey Moore are authorities on Hollywood South. One wrote the book on it (literally) and the other actively works in it. I was fortunate enough to questions the two during this turbulent time on the ins and outs of the Louisiana film industry, the local film culture, what has happened so far and what may happen in the years after. Almost certainly, we must press on to make our state a sustainable and directly producing Hollywood South:

The world’s first operational for-profit movie theater was in New Orleans.

Bill Arceneaux: Hollywood South: What does it mean to you both?

Linda Thurman: Hollywood South sirs memories and emotions for me. When Mayor Nagin announced the Hollywood South Initiative in 2005, I had just delivered a report on the status of the film industry in Louisiana to his office. It was optimistically named “A Time of Great Potential.” Louisiana was in a position similar to Southern California at the beginning of the Digital Revolution. The possibilities were endless and exciting.

Here we are 13 years later, and the disappointment, frustration, and pain of unrealized potential have been devastating for me. And I’m not alone. For anyone who benefited–and there were many fortunate people who flourished, congratulations and keep going. The vision of Hollywood South is a dream that I had to wake from. The reality is getting better, but what might have been haunts me.

Casey Moore: It is my life. This is how I provide for my family. This is what I do: I work on movies and tv shows. And this is all I do. I have seen Hollywood South bring in people to this state to work and live and become a part of the community. I have seen a brain drain reversed.

I get to work in the industry I love while helping to support my family.

BA: Obviously any film, TV or media project shooting here is good for all, but do you two have any favorites?

Linda: My favorite film is one that never happened. Instant Karma was an $80 million project set to star Robin Williams originally and later Dwayne Johnson. The State pre-certified production tax credits for my company. Our local workforce was about 150 stagehands at the time. We needed 300-500 to go into production.

Our partners in Hollywood took the time to keep working on the script and financing. Unfortunately, by the time it got through development hell in Hollywood, there were two insurmountable obstacles: the script had changed so much it was almost unrecognizable, and the legal rights were tangled into a Gordian knot. It was a great script that never made it to the screen.

Casey: I have a few. The first film I worked on here was a kid’s movie called Labou. I had a great time working on that film and getting to know my city again. We had just moved back. I loved Treme and having people get a glimpse into our city. My favorite film to work on tough was The Final Destination. I loved working for David Ellis. He was so much fun and full of life. It was all stunts and action with some gore. It was one of the shows where the whole crew felt involved and that came from Ellis and producer Craig Perry.

I have been lucky. I have worked on some good shows with some good crews. And even on some of the bad ones, I still got to work with friends, and we did our best to make it through.

BA: What is the current state of film in Louisiana – productions, incentives, jobs, culture, etc – as it stands today?

Linda: My close involvement ended in 2014 when I retired from Emerald Bayou Studios, but I have a few thoughts and observations from the edge.

We’ve reached a point where the incentives might stabilize – one of the major obstacles all along has been the legislature’s erratic behavior. The industry is smaller and tighter than in its heyday of 2013 where more major films were made in Louisiana than in California. It’s unlikely we’ll see that happen now that California has an incentive program.

Our film culture boasts some of the best and worst aspects of Hollywood and Louisiana. Our creative cultures blend beautifully–and that’s magical. It’s gratifying that we’re now able to export talent. But it’s sad that our people have to find work out of state. That will continue to fluctuate. Hollywood works in cycles.

Late last year the Louisiana Center for Women in Government and Business presented a panel on the Hollywood South and Women Entrepreneurs. Susan Brennan, owner of Second Line Studios, Val Grubb, former network executive and president of the New Orleans Film Society, and award-winning producer Sue Vaccaro shared their real-life experience with a standing-room-only audience.  It was one of the best panels I’ve ever moderated. With feet firmly planted on the ground, things look good.

Anything as glittering as the film industry has a dark side. The thrill of being part of a successful film can’t be matched. No matter how far off-screen your job, you can feel the limelight. The intense desire to be part of the industry lays people open to fraud and corruption. Big money and creative accounting add to the jeopardy. Even well-meaning people get caught up in the hype. We need to believe in our dreams. Are there bad guys out there? Sure. But there are more good guys. And that a very good thing.

Casey: The industry is good. It has changed due to the current nature of the credits. We won’t have big huge films anymore, but this past spring it was so busy shows were struggling to find crew and gear. Things have leveled out here in the second half of the year, but we currently have two TV shows in production and two films. There are two TV shows in prep right now and three films. There are a host of rumored projects. Plus, Claws and Queen Sugar are coming back. We have regular training going on at NOVAC from people in the industry. The new credits program is also allowing for interns, so people are getting into this business and getting experience.

That said, there is always work to be done. We need to truly work on creating a film culture in Louisiana. Our universities have film programs and that is good, but we need more programs in high schools and summer programs for kids to learn filmmaking. I would even advocate that we start teaching visual literacy in our schools so people understand the media they are consuming.

We have lots of film fests of all sizes, and some good venues to watch films, but more theaters willing to show classic films and foreign films would always be a help. Film culture isn’t just about people working on films, it is people watching them and discussing them and eager for more.

We also need to advocate for local filmmakers. We need more grant programs to support local filmmakers, and we need to encourage more local filmmakers, and not just writers and directors and DP’s, but also producers. We need to encourage investment in local productions. The current credits have incentives for local productions, but we need to get the word out there more.

BA: Who are the best state legislators/advocates for a stronger local film industry and what have they done to support it?

LindaAfter years of legislative hearings, I’ve taken my leave of the Capitol. However, there is an observation I’d like to share. Back in 2005, legislators’ eyes glazed over in any real conversation about the industry. In fact, anyone who had walked onto a studio lot in California considered themselves an expert and didn’t want to hear the truth about how the industry works.

Linda Thurman with legendary film critic Leonard Maltin

Today the film office and legislators are much better informed. However, there is a glaring weak spot and that’s the economic reports. Economists are getting cherry-picked data, even when they’re asking the right questions–which is rare. I don’t think the public will ever know the whole truth about how much the industry means to our economy…

BA: Tax incentives: Explain why we have them, if they help, and whether alternatives should be explored.

Linda: When the great visionaries who created the studios were gone, they were replaced with attorneys and business moguls. As Scott Ross, founder of Digital Domain and former senior VP of George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, explains in the foreword to my book, these Hollywood bean counters are always looking for OPM, other people’s money. The tax incentives have become a necessity to attract production. In the early 1980’s Canada built an industry by offering them. When Louisiana joined in around 2003, there really weren’t many other states competing. Now, the country and the world have bought into the idea that incentives are the bait that catches big financial fish.

Done right with common sense oversight, incentives are good for everyone. Producers have to spend much more money than they get back. Because Louisiana was several years into the game before it adopted rules and regulations, a lot of money was lost to the state. People went to jail, but that doesn’t make up for the damage.

The best result would be a fair and equitable system for small productions. There are around 5,000 independent films made every year – about 2,000 in the U.S. That’s the sweet spot.

Another important move is toward supporting our own investment funds. Making movies takes money. There are always good projects that need financing. Producers follow the money. If we offer decent incentives and funding, too, we’d be golden.

Casey: We have them because there really is no other way to attract film and tv production. This has been going on for years. Even California has tax incentives and it is the home of production. And, we aren’t just competing against other states, we are also competing against other countries. The key is to have proper oversight and balanced credits. Right now we have a solid program that is doing its job and bringing in productions $60 million and under and bringing in plenty of TV shows. We do need though to actively work on growing our own production base with writers and directors and producers who can fund locally created movies.

BA: Casey has worked on a multitude of sets. What is the atmosphere like for the general laborers/crew members from the region? How about for local moviegoers and movie-going?

Casey: Most of the crew I know and talk to are pretty happy right now. This year had been great for people. Work is back to being regular and back to being shows with decent size budgets, or, even better for working crew, TV shows which last for several months at a time.

As for local movie going, we have some good options and some nice specialty cinema. I would like to see more screenings with some of the filmmakers in attendance, but the mini film festivals that pop up are always nice. It goes to creating a true film culture. We can’t just be about making films, we have to also be a place to watch them. I do wish we had some more programs to expose younger kids to classic films and the art of film-making.

Linda: In the PJ’s where I’m writing these answers, two men are discussing production issues nearby, and at another table of a couple of writers are interviewing a third about working on their series. It sounds like Starbuck’s on Barrington in L.A.

Movies and tv shows are more exciting when you recognize local sites and actors. Locals are having a field day. Another development is the myriad viewing options that range from IMAX to iPhone. Augmented and virtual reality will put the viewer in the action. We’ll be able to pick a level of involvement from passive observer to influencing or even directing the action. Kids raised on game culture will take it for granted.

BA: Beasts of the Southern Wild was a major Academy Awards contender for us, making the ceremony feel like a Saints game for area film buffs. If more moments like this are to come for Hollywood South, what do you see in its future and how can/will it benefit Louisiana?

Casey: Awards are always great. And it hasn’t just been Beasts. We also had Robin Matthews win an Oscar for her work on the locally shot Dallas Buyers Club. And currently, the locally shot Green Book is now getting talk about awards. But, the awards don’t drive the productions here. We need to show we have a stable credit system and that we have the crew and gear and space to make the films. As long as we do that, we will continue to have a solid working industry.

Linda: Anything positive about the industry is great. Make good news an everyday occurrence. There’s plenty of good stuff happening. Educate and entertain the public with the things we love about movies–making them and watching them. I love this industry. My fondest wish is that somehow we reach that stage where everybody has a great personal film experience. Judging from the conversations I overhear, we’re on our way.

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