Friday, July 17, 2009

Film in LA (or not)

Well, they've done it. They've actually managed to drive the industry that Los Angeles and Hollywood is actually known for ( Hollywood!) out of the state. By "they", I mean the bureaucratic half-wits who we (well, not me) elected to run this city and state. Who would have ever imagined a time when more movies would actually be shot in Louisiana and Georgia than Hollywood? Now before the letters saying, "Oh, another LA guy is upset that they're shooting movies somewhere else," start coming in, let me clarify. It's not that they're doing it, I work all over the country anyway. It's the way they're doing it, and the effect it's having on my Grip and Electric brothers and sisters.

I worked in Atlanta and all through the South in the late eighties and early nineties. At that time, it was common for any given city in the country to be the "Flavor of the Month" for the film industry and this was Atlanta's time. I was there working during a boom in production for the city and with the relatively small pool of grips in town, the back to back procession of features, tv movies, and series ensured my perpetual employment. A boom would last for anywhere from two to four years and then the studios would decide they liked Dallas or New Orleans better and move on, leaving a smattering of occasional features or tv movies to keep us employed until the next boom came around. It was cyclical, we all knew that, and it had nothing to do with tax incentives, which were unheard of for the film business back then. Cities in those days were picked mainly for their locations, ease of shooting, and availability of qualified crew members. Los Angeles was a far away place that we both loved and hated for her fickle attentions, but we all knew we were dependent upon it because that's where the business was. It was the home planet that sent representatives in the form of Key Grips, Dolly Grips, and even Hammers with the shows that came in, whom we resented, learned from, and eventually became friends with (I know, I shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition but it would be twice as long otherwise). We were a small community, but proud of our technical abilities and work ethic. Then the door to Pandora's box was opened and nothing has ever been the same since. Studios discovered Vancouver and tax incentives and suddenly a job at Home Depot wasn't that farfetched. Work in Atlanta dried up. We straggled along with enough commercial work and features at home and in nearby states to make a living, but the salad days were gone. In the back of our minds, though, we always knew that there was LA. They would never stop making movies there. I was lucky at the time to be working (I still am) with a Key Grip who had become well sought after by some very big DPs and directors. He had his Local 80 card and worked frequently in LA. Eventually, I realized that I could no longer make the living I wanted in just Georgia and out of necessity, also acquired my card. I still worked in Georgia when the calls infrequently came, but now I could always find a job in LA when I needed one.

Then came Shreveport. A lot of the people I knew in Georgia had moved there for work, which was plentiful.

Then came Boston. Then Connecticut, and the ever present New Mexico. Then Georgia, again.

Only this time, it's different. It's not a decision based on locations or crew depth or proximity to an airport. It's a race to the bottom based purely on which state is giving away the most money at any given time. And there's no way to stop it. Let me clarify something right now. I'm happy for the workers in these states. I'm glad that Georgia is once again the darling of producers if only for the sake of the techs who live there. I'm glad they're working. As long as they realize that it could dry up tomorrow as soon as another state gives a better deal. It's my home state. I still have a residence there and would love to work there again. And I'm sure if I had stayed there and never come to LA that I wouldn't give a rat's ass what was going on out here. But something's wrong. What's going on is just crazy. I'm watching second generation Key Grips who have worked on the same lots as their parents lose their houses. Studio lots that normally would be jammed with trucks, and honeywagons, and stakebeds are ghost towns. I was on the Warner Brother's lot two weeks ago and there was one other show besides ours there. Businesses that have supplied the studios with condors and catering and dry cleaning for thirty years are closing their doors. And it's not like the shows are permanently relocating to a cheaper city to stay. The bosses are still here. They drive their Mercedes and Porsches through the studio gates every morning, while Grips and Juicers chase shows all over the country, living in Extended Stays and working as locals just to send money home to pay their mortgages. And there's the problem. No one is safe anymore. If you're in an incentive city that suddenly gets hot, droves of shows come in from out of nowhere. The bench of locals is suddenly thinned and techs from everywhere start coming in. Rental houses from out of town open up shop and begin competing with, and in many cases driving down rental rates for local rental houses. Local politicians crow about how Boise, Idaho or Cleveland, Ohio is the new Hollywood and start planning studio construction. Then, suddenly Wheeling, West Virginia offers a higher tax rebate and it's a stampede to the border leaving a crowd of dazed locals, empty warehouses, and starstruck citizens behind. Now, a new population of local techs suddenly have more work than they could ever dream of and the one's in the town left behind either move or sit at home waiting for the phone to ring. There's nowhere to put down roots anymore because places aren't chosen because of location. Time was, if you needed Savannah you went to Savannah. Now you go wherever you can get 40% and throw some spanish moss around. True, Los Angeles has stood in for everywhere for years. And if you had to or wanted to, you could move there and work every day and go home every night. Or if you lived in New Orleans, you knew that enough shows would need a New Orleans look that you would get enough work to do well and you could go home every night. Same with Atlanta or anywhere else that has a significant production community. The balance is completely off though, and there's nowhere safe to establish a home base. What's hot today could be dead in two years so you may as well keep the van packed and be ready to go at any time. For the first ten years of my career I worked mainly in Georgia with the occasional location in Mississippi or Alabama. Then, incentives killed Georgia, so I worked mainly in Los Angeles and Georgia for the next five or six years. In the last two years I've been to Shreveport, Boston twice, New York twice, and Connecticut. I've turned down jobs in Detroit and Iowa.

The thing is, I don't blame the studios. They're doing what they do and have always done. This business is about money, pure and simple. Anyone who thinks it's about art hasn't seen Transformers.

I blame the lawmakers. They started this. Now California has to join the same grim war of giveaways just to compete in the industry it's known for and in which it still originates. And they refuse. Businesses are leaving California in droves because of endless red tape, restrictions, and ever rising taxes. So now I'm torn. On the one hand I'm pissed at the cretins who have turned this state into a punchline for not moving to protect a homegrown industry, and on the other, I'm pissed that states are being lured into this trap by studios whispering in their ears and by visions of their legislators getting their pictures made with Kevin Costner. Some of these places are building studios. And as soon as Ohio gives a better deal, they'll sit neglected, millions wasted on empty promises. Does this make me a hypocrite? Probably a little. But piling more incentives upon the heap is the only way Hollywood can hope to stay busy now. Self preservation tends to kick in a little when you've moved twice and finally started establishing yourself in the one place that there should always be a movie shooting.

So where does it end? I really don't know. I want to say what I've always said: it's cyclical and we've just entered a perfect storm of bad economy and union actions. But I just don't know.


  1. Well said, D. Listening to "The Business" yesterday on KCRW, a chill went down my spine (despite the steaming heat) when the show's host reported that 43 states now offer incentives to attract the film business. She then moderated a short debate between a legislator from Boston and another from New Orleans on the subject. It's worth listening to, if only to further grasp just how bad things really are. When she asked the guy from New Orleans if he was worried that the new California incentives might stem the outgoing tide now benefiting his city, he coolly replied "Not really. They're bankrupt out there."

    True enough, unfortunately.

    With only so much filming to go around, this has become a zero-sum game of musical chairs in which we'll all eventually find ourselves standing out in the rain.

    I don't know how it end either, but on a selfish note, am glad I've only got a handful of years to go. It's hard to envision a scenario in which the situation gets better anytime soon here in LA. Given the current cut-throat circumstances, I'd hate to be just getting started in an industry facing such tectonic changes and perpetual uncertainty.

  2. that's the position im in right now, Michael. I'm graduating in 9.5 weeks and have to work part time in retail right now just to live here, and I'll go insane if I have to continue doing so post grad.

    I want to think that we're on the cusp of something great, a revolution if you will, that just hasn't quite been realized yet. and yet my cynicism repeatedly takes over and reminds me how effed this is.

    but all this action, or lack thereof, builds character too.

  3. I'm torn on this issue. I want the film business to stay in Hollywood more than anything, but I also think the people in other states should have the opportunity to work in this field as well. I remember when shows only went out of town for the sole purpose of shooting locations that we didn't have here. Not because it was cheaper. I've been at this for almost twenty years and have only been truly out of town on a location about five times. Two of those were last year. The real problem I have with productions going away is that it is killing the economy of my state, California. The movie business is our town factory. Plain and simple. Anyone...and I mean anyone can find a niche in this business and work hard and make a good living. I'm from Los Angeles. Almost every kid I grew up with, male or female, works in this industry. It's truly about 80% of them. Like I said it's our town factory. The jobs are there and the training is available. Well at least it was. Now its sparse and the competition is cut-throat. Another big problem is that we (and by "we" I don't mean me) elected an actor to run one of the biggest economies on Earth and an incredibly diverse state. I wouldn't trust an actor to watch my dog when I went out of town let alone look after a state. And above all you would think that he would at least prioritize in the field that made him such a success and recognize it's importance to the economy of his own state. For some reason it doesn't seem to even be on his agenda at all. That being said, if productions are going to go to other states but are based out of Los Angeles (which many of them are) they should have to pay full Cali rates to the employees in those states as well. The below the liners deserve it.

  4. Great comments guys. I'm having computer problems so I may be in and out for a few days. Thanks

  5. Eric -- I think you're right, and a revolution of sorts is brewing, but most revolutions leave a lot of blood on the floor -- whenever an old established order is overturned, the carnage is considerable. The digital revolution is gradually bringing a cheap means of cinematic story-telling to the people, but with the old economic models crumbling, it's no longer clear how to make a living in the process.

    Do what you have to do -- and if that means working retail monday-friday, then find a way to write and shoot your films on the weekends. Something good will eventually come of it -- once you open that door, you'll make it happen.

    Good luck.

  6. Anonymous6:14 PM

    I lived through the boom and bust in Vancouver through 3 cycles going back to when there were no sound stages and we shot in warehouses. The worst part of the whole thing, is when it booms, you get a lot of unskilled labor who can't do the job, and when it busts the skilled laborers who can do the job leave the business. It kills the crew depth. You lose continuity, you lose wisdom, you lose experience. When your 2nd AC suddenly becomes a DP it's not good for anyone.

  7. Anonymous6:14 PM

    I lived through the boom and bust in Vancouver through 3 cycles going back to when there were no sound stages and we shot in warehouses. The worst part of the whole thing, is when it booms, you get a lot of unskilled labor who can't do the job, and when it busts the skilled laborers who can do the job leave the business. It kills the crew depth. You lose continuity, you lose wisdom, you lose experience. When your 2nd AC suddenly becomes a DP it's not good for anyone.