Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ready, set, go

Ready, set, go
By Jeff Roedel |
Tuesday, February 1, 2011

There was a time when the Hollywood trades did not bother printing the name “Baton Rouge.” If an in-state film was not shot in New Orleans, then according to Variety or The Hollywood Reporter, it was simply made somewhere else “in Louisiana.” Change has come, though, and it is due in large part to the relentless efforts of the Baton Rouge Film Commission.

After Katrina temporarily shut down the New Orleans film industry in 2005, eyes turned swiftly toward Shreveport and Baton Rouge as new Hollywood hubs for using the lucrative tax incentives for film production that Louisiana had enacted just three years prior. That fall, Mayor Holden’s trip to Los Angeles to tell studio executives that Baton Rouge was A) dry, and B) open for business did more than just help reel in new prospects. Just a year later it attracted the city’s best prospect, someone to not only manage but leverage the attention the city was beginning to get.

A former veteran of Oscar-factory Miramax Pictures, Amy Mitchell Smith took office as director of the Baton Rouge Film Commission in January 2007. According to some of the group’s founding members, the commission had a reserve of enthusiasm but lacked direction. “As a commission, we were floundering somewhat,” says Stacy Simon, director of projects at Baton Rouge Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “We needed someone like Amy.”

When Smith arrived, she inherited one Word .doc.

“It was kind of a makeshift local crew list, and that was the extent of it,” Smith says. “That and a cubicle right next to the receptionist at CVB.”

Still effectively connected with the CVB, but now joined by Katie Harvey—another New York transplant and a former post-production supervisor—the commission is a full-time staff of two tasked with selling the city as a filmable and hospitable location, then uncoiling the logistical challenges presented by the productions that say yes.

It’s a job that doesn’t watch the clock. Inside her office or out of it, Smith has to be always on, always available and always ready to meet needs, whether it is finding the perfect room or exterior location for a scene or presenting local traffic engineers with the production details they need to see before they can initiate a road closure.

Smith’s favorite films of 2010
Lovers of Hate

I saw the premiere of this IFC release at South by Southwest last March. It was made for less than no budget by up-and-coming director Bryan Poyser. This is one of the most inventive and hysterically awkward stories of a love triangle I’ve ever seen.
“The $600,000 productions get just as much attention as the $100 million production,” Smith says. “There’s goodwill to that, but the bottom line is the indie filmmaker of today could be your mega-blockbuster filmmaker of tomorrow. So when they have a really good experience in a market, they can end up being loyal to that market and laying permanent roots here, and we end up with our ‘Soderbergh’ back in Baton Rouge or growing our own ‘Robert Rodriguez.’”

Melinda Walsh is an actress and marketing specialist who has been on the Baton Rouge Film Commission Advisory Board since Mayor Holden founded it in 2006. She now chairs the group that advises Smith’s commission. Walsh has seen the monumental cultural change Smith’s work has helped trigger locally.

“There’s definitely been a shift,” Walsh says. “Baton Rougeans are more film-friendly now because they see the positive economic impact of having movies made here. And they are more understanding when they hear, ‘You’re going to hear gunfire in your neighborhood today, but don’t worry; it’s not aimed at you, and it’s not even real.’”

Part of that economic impact can be felt in the hospitality sector. According to Simon, who coordinates lodging for film productions and helps the commission scout locations with CVB colleague Kristen Maurel, the film industry was responsible for the city-parish booking an additional 22,000 hotel room nights in 2009.

Since last fall, Celtic has added 83,000 square feet of stage space on three new soundstages and another 25,000 square feet of production office space on its 23-acre lot.

Smith’s goals for 2011 are to formalize and streamline the city’s permit process for film production and to land a TV series for Baton Rouge.

Five years after New Orleans suffered a setback with Katrina, the city is back on its feet and home to one of the most talked-about series on television, HBO’s Treme. Film Commission member Mari Kornhauser is now a staff writer on the show, and Smith knows that dramatic television is more than just home to some of the best creative writing today. It is also a fast track to longevity for a market like Baton Rouge.

“Production work can be transient work,” Smith says. “But if we’re able to bring a television series here to Baton Rouge, and that pilot gets picked up by a network that commits to stay in this market, that’s a huge goal for this office, especially now that we’ve laid a strong foundation and proven ourselves.”


news said...

I recently wrote an article on Louisiana Studios, Soundstages & Post-Production Facilities for a site I contribute to, I was astonished at the amount of investment the state's film industry has garnered. Especially in Baton Rouge since Katrina.

news said...

Sorry, here's a clickable link.