Not So Easy to Film in the Big Easy

By Jake Coe

New Orleans was a location to shoot at, not a studio town.  Productions would only come if they had something specific to film in New Orleans, and would produce the rest of the film elsewhere.  But that changed, in 2006 legislation was tweaked to make it more beneficial to film here due to tax credits.  The Hollywood South was born, and with it came an industry intent on staking their claim in the new gold rush.  Studios cropped up left and right, movie stars started buying mansions in the greater New Orleans area, and even the native New Orleanian could find all the extra and grip work all over the city.  But before the industry could plant its foot, the tax credits dried up.

“The peak year of filming was 2014. There was a moment in the fall when there was 19 separate feature films or television shows shooting in the greater New Orleans area at one time.  Right now, there are 6 television shows or pilots and 2 major films and a bunch of indy stuff,” says Darcy McKinnon, the executive director of NOVAC, a media arts non-profit based in New Orleans.  

NOVAC used to train local workers to help on sets when the big productions would come to town and need extra people to help out on set, but McKinnon says since 2015 there has been no demand for the extra help.  The turn came when a bill capped the available tax credits for film productions in Louisiana, but, “In order to tell the recent history, you have to tell the previous history, which is prior to Hurricane Katrina, there was not a significant amount of independent film production in Louisiana or New Orleans.”  

Then,  in 2006, the state offered a 35% to productions seeking to make films as long as they spent their money in Louisiana.  This lead to a boom of big budget movies and filmed in Louisiana including “Django Unchained”, the final two “Twilight” films and “Jump Street 22”, as well as some smaller budget films and TV shows like “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, “True Detective” and “NCIS New Orleans”.  The film industry set up shop and grew from 2006 through 2015, until the tax credit well ran dry.  In the legislative session of 2015, then Gov. Bobby Jindal froze the payout of tax credits and issued the $180,000,000 cap on the tax credits in response to the state’s fiscal crisis. The big Hollywood films left the state for greener pastures, especially Atlanta, Georgia, which has no tax credit cap.  In 2016, all of the $180,000,000 were taken in one day by productions from the previous year waiting for their pay out.

The only brightside to the bill, according to McKinnon is “a measure was put in place to make it possible for local independent filmmakers to access the tax credits, called the Indigenous Incentive.”  What this did was make films with budgets as low as $50,000 (small independent films) eligible for the tax credit.  However even this has a caveat, a $7,500 audit is required to be eligible for the credit, which for an independent film is a large percentage of the budget, which does not make filming in New Orleans much more enticing for even an independent producer.  The law allows the tax credit to be leveraged against debt however, so small films are able to take advantage of the law, but they require a more guaranteed return on investment, leading to mostly productions of horror films and TV pilots.

And while some independent production is still being made in New Orleans, Darcy McKinnon says “to be clear, we will not have significant production without a tax credit program, that is the way the industry works at large, so we either decide to be competitive or not.”  And if the trend continues for studio movies, independent production also suffers.  Because of the Hollywood productions, local independent film makers have access to equipment such as cameras that are studio quality for cheap when they are not rented out already.  ”I think without the Hollywood production industry it’s going to be difficult to maintain a strong independent film culture, and here’s why, independent film makers work as PAs, they work as camera assistants, they work as grips, they work doing behind the scene stuff on big film, and they make a living doing that stuff, making good day rate at high wages, that allow them to live in New Orleans with the relatively low cost of living and make their independent work,” says McKinnon.  The ripple effect doesn’t stop there either.  Many of the local universities have growing and successful film programs thanks to the film industry relocating to New Orleans during the decade after Katrina.  ”Y’all set it up, Y’all made it, so this seems like a viable industry for the state, and now y’all are taking this away while there are kids paying money in state to learn this.”

While some stages such as Second Line Stages have managed to stay full, they are the exception not the rule.  Newer stages and ones still in development have been halted, and industries such as camera houses, prop houses and grip houses have all suffered as a result.  Despite the loss of jobs in New Orleans, many argue that at the state level there is not discernible rate of return on investment, and therefore it is not worth the tax exemption.  To that, McKinnon says “Louisiana is the number 1 grantor of tax exemptions in the country, corporate tax exemptions, and the amount we give to the film industry is so small relative to other industries like oil and gas, who have to be here anyway.  And other corporations who I’ve watched apply for exemptions to the tune of $12 million to create 12 jobs, where as you take $18 million a year to create over 4000 jobs for the film industry.”  The other big argument against the tax credits is that while the money is coming from the state, the majority of the film productions spend their money only in the Orleans and surrounding parishes, while the rest of the state is left to foot the bill.  New Orleans has many prejudices against it from the rest of the state, and it has been easy for state politicians to exploit this and argue against the credits because they only benefit a few parishes.  Darcy McKinnon has a response for this as well, “The majority of the population in the state lives in New Orleans, and New Orleans especially Orleans Parish, does not have oil reserves, does not have agricultural base, and in fact it does not have many natural resources that make up the economic engine for the rest of the state, so [New Orleans] needs to develop our own economic engines, and those economic engines for the rest of the state are getting tax incentivised all over the place, so fair is fair.”

The future of film in New Orleans, and Louisiana as a whole is uncertain, much of the future depends on the next legislative session, and if proponents of the tax credits are able to convince the state legislature that it’s worth it to invest in the film industry.  There are hopes that things will pick up in the 2017 fiscal year when more tax credits open up, and the industry is still kicking.  Despite everything, Darcy McKinnon still hopes for a Hollywood ending, “I have high hopes for the future.”

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