Monday, January 5, 2009

Filming in New Orleans Keeps Rolling Through Recession by Mike Scott

Posted by Mike Scott,
Movie writer,
The Times-Picayune January 04, 2009 12:23PM

Merrick Morton / Paramount

Hollywood South is coming off another record-setting year, with 80-plus major TV and film projects shooting in Louisiana, including this year's mega-budget "Curious Case of Benjamin Button" -- starring Brad Pitt and New Orleans. You can eat all the black-eyed peas you want but it's hard to be overly optimistic as 2009 dawns -- unless, that is, you work in the local film industry.

Economic slump or no economic slump, Hollywood South is coming off another record-setting year, with 80-plus major TV and film projects shooting in Louisiana by the state's count, and 21 of those in New Orleans. In both cases, those numbers best the 2007 numbers..

So even as the rest of the country braces for a painful 2009, local film-industry officials enter the new year with a rare, if tempered, confidence.

"In terms of sheer volume, we are bracing for a slight downturn," said Jennifer Day, the head of the city-run Office of Film and Video, "but all hope should not be lost, because we are on the case. We are launching a new strategic marketing campaign this spring to basically target more national commercial work... (and) more music video work."

No, it's not as sexy as, say, landing another mega-budget "Curious Case of Benjamin Button" -- the Brad Pitt film that hit theaters on Christmas Day -- but it could help the city on two fronts, Day said: First, it could help industry workers endure the economic downturn without abandoning the city for Los Angeles or Toronto or New York. At the same time, it could begin a trend in which such smaller projects routinely come to town during hurricane season, a time that has traditionally seen feature-film projects shy from shooting here for fear of storm-forced production disruptions.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for us to fill that gap, diversify the industry and make it more robust," Day said. "So really not only is it a remedy to the hurricane-season challenge, but it's just better for the industry."

Nicholas D'Agosto, left, Josh Gad and Bret Harrison star in the locally shot comedy 'Max's Mardi Gras,' set for release Aug. 28. That's not to say there are no high-profile projects on the horizon. HBO plans to begin shooting "Treme," the latest project from David Simon, the highly regarded creator of "The Wire." If it's successful, "Treme" could generate local production work for years.

Without naming names, Day said there are five other "viable projects that we've worked very closely with that have a very, very good chance of landing here" in the first half of the new year.

And then there's the wealth of projects that have shot here and should hit theaters next year, thus maintaining the city's profile in the industry. They include the sports drama "Hurricane Season," starring Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker as the head coach of John Ehret High School's post-K basketball team; "12 Rounds," the Renny Harlin-directed action film starring pro wrestler John Cena; and, in consecutive weeks in August, the latest in the "Final Destination" horror franchise and the Sony-financed comedy "Max's Mardi Gras."

Perhaps the highest-profile 2009 project with local links is Disney's animated fairy tale "The Princess and the Frog," set for release next Christmas. Although it isn't being made here -- aside from recording a chunk of the film's music -- the project promises to generate the kind of positive PR that money can't buy.

That's a lesson Day learned recently as "Benjamin Button" mega-producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy have hit the publicity circuit raving about their local filmmaking experience.

"On one hand, it's in writing, it's captured on video: industry leaders praising New Orleans. Then, on the other hand, you have to look at the production quality of the film itself. It is so beautiful. We always talk about, if your project requires something special, if you're looking for a special edge, New Orleans adds something you cannot create, something you cannot manufacture, and the mystique in the city translates onto film."

Not everything is sunshine and roses, however. If the Screen Actors Guild decides to strike, major production work could dry up quickly. Also, other states have been adopting tax-incentive plans of their own to draw the film industry to their states.

"I'm not really that concerned," Day said. "I mean, of course it's an issue, but in the scheme of things, Louisiana has positioned itself very, very favorably. We have been doing this for six years, we have track records. When it comes down to it, our crew and resources have matured to a point that not many states can match."

The locally shot horror flick 'Final Destination: Death Trip 3D' is set for release Aug. 21.FINALIZED, new titles and release dates for two films that shot here last year: The Sony/Screen Gems ensemble comedy "Mardi Gras," starring Nicholas D'Agosto, Josh Gad, Bret Harrison and Carmen Electra, has been redubbed "Max's Mardi Gras" and is expected to land in theaters Aug. 28. And the horror sequel "Final Destination 4," starring Mykelti Williamson, is now going by the title "Final Destination: Death Trip 3D." It is set for an Aug. 21 release.

PERRY CHRISTMAS: Local product Tyler Perry, in full "Madea" get-up, was seen recently as the face of Lionsgate Films' Christmas cards, which double as a promo for Perry's forthcoming film "Madea Goes to Jail" (Due out Feb. 20.) On the front of the card: A festively decorated prison, with the words "Wish You Were Here." Inside: Perry as Madea in a jail cell, and the words "The Holidays Aren't the Same Without You."

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