Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Abandoned Elmwood warehouse to become largest film studio east of Mississippi River
by Mike Scott
The Times-Picayune movie critic
Monday March 30, 2009, 7:49 AM
At first, the script called for recasting the old Winn-Dixie warehouse complex in Elmwood into a shiny new Hollywood-style studio -- soundstages, a commissary, a back lot, maybe even a palm tree or two -- over several months of construction.
The 25-acre facility, with more than 500,000 square feet of warehouse space -- which officials said would make it the biggest studio this side of Albuquerque, N.M. -- would undergo a $40 million, tip-to-tail overhaul and reopen late this summer as the region's largest one-stop-shop for TV and film productions.
If they built it, the "Field of Dreams"-inspired thinking went, film and TV projects would come.
The local production industry, however -- that rare thriving sector of the local economy -- couldn't wait.
So with the star-studded action film "The Expendables" and the indie adventure "Dead of Night" coming to town this spring and in need of studio space, the ambitious script for the facility has undergone an on-the-fly rewrite. It is now open for business, months earlier than planned.
"They were knocking on our door," studio president and New Orleans native Dan Forman said. "The films that were calling on us, we didn't want to turn them away. If you tell them no, they won't come back."
For two weeks in late January and early February, the heavily vandalized site that has been idle for more than four years -- aside from a brief stint as a set for "Meet the Spartans" in 2007 and "Cirque du Freak" in 2008 -- was rushed back into commerce, with targeted renovations focusing on the parts of the facility needed by "The Expendables" and "Dead of Night."
"We didn't even have lights back here until two weeks ago," Forman said during a recent tour of one of the soundstage areas. "The buildings had been stripped of everything: copper plumbing, wires. It was ravaged."
Things are brighter now, and crews for both films have been tackling pre-production work on the Louisiana Film Studios campus for several weeks. Cameras and a cadre of stars will begin arriving this week as eight weeks of principal photography gets under way on the supernatural thriller "Dead of Night," inspired by the Italian horror comics series "Dylan Dog" and starring "Superman Returns" actor Brandon Routh.
"The Expendables" -- starring Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the script and will also direct, Mickey Rourke, Forest Whitaker, Jet Li and Jason Statham -- will begin its eight-week local shoot April 27 after three weeks in Brazil.
The buildings they will use won't be nearly as shiny and spiffy as the artist's renderings displayed on an easel in Forman's still-unrenovated office.
"To me it's kind of like it's starting to feel real," studio CEO and project spearhead Wayne Read said. "It's not ideally the way we wanted to launch it. (But) 'The Expendables' wanted the space and we were going to lose them to another market. It was a two-week window where we said, 'If we do this, will you come?'"
Dink Adams was sweating.
His company, Cinelease, one of the largest movie lighting and grip equipment rental companies in the country, was shifting its Louisiana base of operations from Shreveport to the Louisiana Film Studios facility in Elmwood. There was heavy lifting being done, thus the glaze on his forehead. Adding to it were the logistical headaches that accompany any moving day.
But he wasn't complaining. As fond as Adams and Cinelease are of Shreveport -- the company will maintain a smaller operation there -- from a business standpoint, he characterized the move to the Louisiana Film Studios site as a no-brainer.
"This is where the shows are," he said, explaining the move, which he estimated will bring eight to 10 full-time jobs with it. "The last four shows we did last year were in New Orleans. The first three we're doing this year are in New Orleans."
That's music to the ears of Forman and Read, and it fits perfectly into their vision of the studio campus functioning as a home to a collection of film-industry vendors, small production companies and other businesses that can offer on-site support to projects such as "The Expendables" and "Dead of Night."
"The vision of this place started as a community of film," Forman said. "What we saw in other places was a community of filmmakers, a hub of filmmaking. We don't really have that" in New Orleans.
There are other production studios in the area -- the UNO-run Nim's Center, as well as the 90,000-square-foot Second Line Stages taking shape in the Lower Garden District -- but nothing with the size or business model of Louisiana Film Studios.
"The analogy I use," Read said, "is a studio is like a hotel for your production: You might need room service, you might need to go downstairs and have a meeting."
Joshua Throne, the unit production manager for "The Expendables," said the concept of everything in one place is an attractive one.
"You have your offices, you will have some sort of stage or warehouse facility, you will have your mill, you will have your sets. Generally, outside the studio area, you won't find these in a single, condensed area."
So if a cast or crew member needs to go from the business offices to, say, one of the production's sets, it usually means driving through traffic.
"New Orleans presents its own challenges and expenses that go along with it," Throne said. "There are creative advantages that go along with shooting here -- you don't have diversity of looks in other places -- but you have more traffic, more congestion, potholes."
In an industry where time is money, that is not a minor consideration.
Without the Louisiana Film Studios setup, staging a production the size of "The Expendables" in New Orleans "would have been difficult," Throne said. "We would have been more scattered. Having a central hub like this has been extremely good for our situation."
To hear Forman tell it, the rank-and-file crew members are just as happy. "The reason we know we're doing something right," he said, "is when we walk through the sets, the crews are putting their arms around us and saying, 'Thanks for doing this.'Â¤"
On a wall in Forman's office hangs a dry-erase board listing upcoming productions considered potential clients for Louisiana Film Studios, as well the names of potential permanent tenants, in the mold of Cinelease. There is a healthy number of names on the board.
But Forman and Read know a lot of work must be done before Louisiana Film Studios comes even close to resembling the optimistic vision reflected on the easel-mounted artist's rendering in the corner of Forman's office.
"Our goal is, after 'Expendables' and 'Dead of Night,' is to slow down" and get back to molding the facility into the original vision, Forman said.
As it stands now, aside from the Louisiana Film Studios sign on the facade, the Edwards Avenue facility still looks a lot more like a grocery warehouse complex than a movie studio.
The high-ceilinged warehouse-cum-soundstages are still fairly primitive, little more than shells. Much of the office space still needs overhauling. A pair of communal gathering areas -- a break room that will retain its Winn-Dixie decor as an homage to the building's former life, and "the Who Dat Lounge," complete with fleur-de-lis design on the floor -- are in various stages of construction. The future commissary is just that -- in the future.
But there are signs of progress.
Inside one of the hangar-like soundstages last week, the fuselage of a military aircraft was being prepped for use in "The Expendables." A ship set will rise in a parking lot just beyond the armed studio security guards who could easily double as extras in a Stallone film.
Out back, a bulldozer was grading the blank-slate back lot area in preparation for its first set piece: a Brazilian palace-fortress complex. "We're building a replica of a palace we're shooting in Brazil," Throne said. "One we can manipulate and actually destroy."
Studio officials haven't decided what shape the back lot area will take after "The Expendables" leaves. Maybe parts of the Brazilian fortress will stay. A New York City skyline could be added. A French Quarter set is another possibility.
"We have a lot of work to do," Forman said. "We keep changing our vision because we see the needs of projects that we have."
But their dream factory is becoming reality, and Read said he hopes outsiders take notice.
"When the industry looks at us from the outside," he said, "my hope and prayer is they say, 'Look, Louisiana is stepping up. They've been talking about doing a studio in the New Orleans area for years -- and now it's happening.'"
Movie critic Mike Scott be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3444.
Picture by: Kathy Anderson