Wednesday, July 14, 2010

True Money by By Stephanie Riegel

Greater Baton Rouge Business Report

Straw Weisman was looking for a place to film The Big Valley, a big-budget film version of the 1960s TV Western, he chose Baton Rouge, not exactly a dead ringer for 19th-century Stockton, Calif.

While Louisiana’s capital city might lack mountains and tumbleweed-swept desertscapes, it has several things that were more important to the West Coast-based movie producer: namely, tax incentives, a state-of-the-art studio and a local industry that’s willing to bend over backwards to make his job as easy as possible.

“Baton Rouge is on the verge of becoming the next major film town in America,” Weisman says. “The facilities are here, the infrastructure is here and there is a we-can-help-you-get-it-done attitude that is extremely conducive.”

Weisman isn’t the only person to notice.

No less than four major films are being shot here this summer, and the sight of film crews setting up lights and cameras on street corners has become almost as common as sightings of Patrick Dempsey, the handsome Grey’s Anatomy star who has dined at local restaurants and regularly exercised at University and City Park lakes for the past two months while on location for the filming of Flypaper.

All this movie business is adding up to big business for the local economy, though exact numbers are hard to come by. Dozens of service-related companies have sprung up in the past couple of years to provide everything from transportation to lighting and gripping. Other companies—stunt agencies, caterers and sound-effects specialists—have relocated from big-movie markets such as Los Angeles and south Florida.

Even local companies with no previous connection to the entertainment industry suddenly are finding a new market for their products and services.

ON THE SET: True Blood, the HBO series starring Anna Paquin as a telepathic waitress and Stephen Moyer as the vampire with whom she falls in love, filmed on location last summer in the Capital Region. Director Michael Cuesta (above, right) talks on the phone as grips set up the room for filming in Baton Rouge.

“It’s not a large portion of our business yet,” says John Holmes, whose Holmes Building Materials is supplying lumber and hardware for the construction of sets at Celtic Media Centre. “But it’s a special niche where we can do very well.”

The trends are positive, but those in the industry say Baton Rouge has not quite arrived as a full-service, movie-making destination. The city still lacks a critical mass of post-production facilities, particularly in the visual-effects arena. For a number of reasons, producers still do the bulk of their editing, mixing and special effects closer to their homes in Los Angeles or New York.

“A lot of the people who come here don’t have all the connections or the confidence that this is a good place to do post-work,” says Jerry Gilbert, whose firm Post Digital does audio effects for movies. “It’s starting to get there, but it’s not there yet.”

Hooray for Hollywood South

When the state first created the tax incentive program that would come to be known as “Hollywood South” in 2002, Baton Rouge was barely on the map as a movie-making destination. New Orleans was thought to be the star attraction among the state’s major cities, not only because it was the biggest city with the deepest talent pool, but because of its rich architectural offerings.

But Shreveport and Baton Rouge quickly caught up, especially after Hurricane Katrina forced production crews doing business in the Crescent City to move elsewhere in the state.

Of the 15 movies currently in production in Louisiana, six are being shot in New Orleans, four in Baton Rouge, three in Shreveport and two in Lafayette. The studios have played a huge role in attracting the talent that has helped the industry to grow.

This is particularly true at Celtic, which now is the state’s largest movie studio, with five soundstages totaling 140,000 square feet and more than 65,000 square feet of office space that it leases to dozens of small service companies.

RANCH HANDS: Construction crews at Celtic Media Centre begin work on the set of The Big Valley, the big-screen adaptation of the 1960s TV series about a wealthy ranching family and its conflicts.

The Big Valley and Battleship, Universal Studios’ big-screen adaptation of the Milton Bradley board game, are being filmed at Celtic. What’s more, an even bigger motion picture is said to be closely eyeing the facility for a shoot this fall.

Producers like Weisman say that while the Baton Rouge movie industry is impressive for a market this size, Celtic is the jewel in the crown because it offers so much to productions like his.

Not only does Celtic have soundstages, but it has a backlot, where The Big Valley is constructing an entire western town. That’s the reason Weisman ultimately chose the city over New Orleans or Shreveport when deciding where to film.

“Celtic has really posed a unique opportunity for us,” he says. “They were willing to support us more than any place we’ve ever seen.”

Trucks, sounds and stunts

Perhaps the most encouraging detail about the activity at Celtic and other studios is the effect it’s having on the local economy at the ground level. For one thing, it’s creating new businesses. Dozens of startups have been formed to respond to the needs of the growing industry.

Take Hollywood Trucks. Barely 3 years old, the company is an entertainment transportation fleet that provides everything a movie production might need, from a 15-passenger van that can take a crew to scout locations to star trailers and generators. In its brief history, the company has grown from seven vehicles to 250, and revenues are expected to top $5 million this year, up from $1.3 million last year.

“It’s exceeding everyone’s expectations,” Hollywood Trucks owner Andre Champagne says.

Building Studios is another startup that’s performing ahead of expectations.

HEARING FOOTSTEPS: Building Studios specializes in Foley sound effects, which are incidental, real-world sounds that are specific to the on-screen action, such as the click-clack of footsteps or the squeak of an opening door.

The firm does audio effects like dialogue replacement, taking dialogue that was recorded in a noisy environment, re-recording it in a studio, and then dubbing it into the film. The company also specializes in Foley sound effects, which are incidental, real-world sounds that are specific to the on-screen action, such as the squeak of an opening door or the click-clack of footsteps.

“The growth has been absolutely astounding,” says Mike Russo, who worked on his first movie just two years ago and has done dozens since.

Entertainment-industry service companies also are relocating here from other cities.

Post Digital is a case in point. The firm was based in Culver City, Calif., for 15 years and still has a studio there. But Gilbert moved to Baton Rouge in 2006, and he doesn’t regret the decision.

“I was worried at first there wouldn’t be enough work for me to make a living, and it was rocky at first,” he says. “But now it’s gotten to the point where I’m constantly busy.”

There’s enough movie work in the market to attract even super-specialized niche companies like stunt agencies. Two have announced in the past few months they’re relocating here, including Stunts 305, which was previously based in south Florida.

Owner Jay Amor is a 20-year industry veteran who has appeared in commercials, episodes of Miami Vice and movies like Bad Boys II and True Lies. Like Weisman, he was attracted to Louisiana by the tax incentives, but settled on Baton Rouge because of the people he’s met in the local industry.

“There’s really a great group down there,” says Amor, who hopes to complete the move this fall. “It’s a nice area, and there are great facilities.”

The magic of movies

Just as significant as the film industry’s impact on startups and newly relocated companies is the effect it’s having on existing business. Companies that never thought they’d benefit from the movie industry suddenly are finding a new niche.

Holmes Building Materials, for example, has been in existence for more than 50 years, supplying lumber and materials to commercial construction sites. The company developed a relationship with Celtic when the studio was under construction, and it has been involved in building sets there ever since.

The Celtic account is particularly lucrative, not so much because of the materials that Holmes sells to the set crews, but because of the service the firm provides. Construction crews on movie sets work under tight deadlines and typically don’t have time to run to a home-improvement store every time they need a nail gun or a gallon of primer. That’s where Holmes provides a value-added service.

ALIEN SHOOTOUT IN PRODUCE: Cliff Boulden, co-owner of Bet-R-Store near the Perkins Road overpass, shut his neighborhood grocery store for five days last winter for the filming of an alien shootout in Battle: Los Angeles.

“We visit them literally on a daily basis to see what they need,” Holmes says. “When they’ve got to have something, they’ve got to have it right now.”

Other local businesses are benefiting in unexpected ways.

Bet-R-Store, a locally owned neighborhood fixture that sits in the shadow of the Perkins Road overpass, was the scene last winter for an alien shootout in Sony Pictures’ Battle: Los Angeles. For nearly five days, the store was shut down while crews transformed it into the scene of a bombed-out battleground, complete with charred vehicles in the parking lot, black tarp on the windows and packaged food strewn about the aisle floors.

Manager and co-owner Cliff Boulden says the experience was exciting and worth the hassle from a financial standpoint. Sony Pictures paid the store more than what it would have made in five typical days of business, in addition to what it earned selling groceries to the crew each night after shooting was finished.

The production team also was extremely professional, and it restored the grocery store to its former condition inside and out after the shoot. Still, if Boulden was asked again to close the store for a movie production, he doesn’t know that he would, primarily because of the disruption it posed to his regular customers.

“It was a lot more inconvenience to our customers than I realized,” he says. “I didn’t realize how much people really needed and valued our store.”

The Baton Rouge Film Commission is trying to help other local businesses get a piece of the action with its preferred vendor list. Vendors on the list agree to give a discount to customers associated with the movie industry in return for a hoped-for increase in business. So far, it’s making at least a small impact on some businesses.

Lee Porche, owner of Angel Paws Pet Sitter, recently got her first client from the list. She’s keeping the puppy of a man who’s working on one of the movies currently in production. She picks up the pet every morning, and she keeps it until he’s done with work for the day. The gig is great for Porche, not in the least because it’s expected to last several months.

SOUND GUY: Mike Russo of Building Studios worked on his first movie in Baton Rouge just two years ago and has done dozens since then.

But not every firm on the list has benefited. Kay Wilbert is disappointed her Denham Springs-based Professional Limousine Service hasn’t gotten any extra business from the local movie industry. But she’s not giving up.

“We really want to market to them more and participate with them,” she says. “We did actually get a call from one of the studios, but they needed a black hearse, and ours is white.”

To infinity and beyond

While the movie industry can come to Baton Rouge and find top-of-the-line soundstages, experienced stunt men and pet sitters for their stars, there’s still one thing in short supply: post-production facilities that specialize in visual effects.

Even the industry’s biggest cheerleaders concede Louisiana is sending too many of its productions back to the East and West coasts for the lengthy and lucrative post-processing, which includes editing, mixing, dubbing and a host of special effects.

“That’s really where the state needs to focus,” says Patrick Mulhearn, director of studio operations at Celtic. “That’s the big chunk of the budget we’re not getting enough of.”

It’s not that there aren’t experienced firms doing high-end effects. There are several on the audio side, according to those in the industry. And there are a few on the visual side as well. Digital FX, for instance, does work for clients all over the world, and it recently announced that its new Digital Intermediate post-production suite, the only such facility in the Gulf South, helped the firm land a job doing post-work on a feature entitled I Spit on Your Mother’s Grave.

EAT MORE CHICKEN: A sign at the Raising Cane’s location on Corporate Boulevard encourages Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey to stop by for for a Cane’s accessory while in Baton Rouge for the filming of Flypaper.

Why there aren’t more examples like that is largely attributable to the drawn-out nature of post-production work. Pre-production typically takes two or three months, and filming can be done in as little as four to six weeks. But the post-production process can stretch on for months and even up to a year, during which producers and editors typically like to go home.

“Production people are nomadic and will go anywhere to shoot,” says Gilbert. “But post-production people are working for 10-20 weeks in a little room, and they want to be at home, which is L.A. or New York.”

As the industry matures, more executives and creative types are expected to follow. But those in the industry say it will take time to build up a real, full-service, post-production industry here.

“There has to be a good reason for a director and editor and assistant editor and producer to camp out hundreds of miles from home for several months,” Weisman says. “The industry is looking at whether it makes sense to do that here.”

Weisman and others believe the post-segment of the market will continue to grow. The question is by how much, and whether it will be enough to propel Baton Rouge to the next level in the movie industry.

“I don’t think it’s going to be long because there’s so much work to be had here you’re going to see relocations,” Mulhearn says. “It’s only a matter of time, but it’s a chicken-and-egg kind of thing.”

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