Film and television studios are expected to spend more than $400 million in Louisiana this year. TV and movies are one industry that has actually grown bigger since Hurricane Katrina devastated the state's economy, and locals in the industry are determined to make their home into Hollywood South.
In the middle of New Orleans' vast city park, a camera crew is filming a tent revival scene for The Mysterious Case of Benjamin Button. It's the biggest movie ever shot here. It stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, and the budget is $150 million.
The movie was to be set in Baltimore, Maryland, but producers found a better deal in Louisiana. They'll get up to 25 percent of the budget back as a tax rebate, including discounts for every local person they hire. So, as line producer Cean Chaffin explains, they rewrote the script to shoot here. "This movie wasn't going to get made without the tax credits, that's the truth of the matter. It's worth about $20 million to us. But we all feel it's better. The film is better because we're in Louisiana."
One reason is the people. Chaffin says Louisiana has amazing background talent. The choir in the movie is from a local church. But locals are landing speaking roles, too. Lance Nichols is playing the preacher. "I'm from New Orleans," he explains. "I spent 24 years in L.A. I moved back since Katrina. I was doing fine in L.A. working mostly in television, but to come back and have opportunities in features, which is really what I want to do more of, it was perfect timing." Other actors have been drawn to New Orleans by the availability of roles in film and TV.
And now homegrown production studios are springing up. Malcolm Petal started his own film company, LIFT Productions, a few years ago. He's building a seven-hectare complex in New Orleans that will house five sound stages and a film school.
Petal used to be a lawyer for oil and gas companies here. Now, dressed casually in jeans and a baseball cap, he's positively evangelical about the film industry. "There's a job for every trade," he insists, "carpenters and electricians and hairdressers. Every business in town gets used: the dry cleaners and the hotels and the car rental services. So the money gets out into the community fast. It's non-polluting, unlike a lot of other industries we could attract down here."
Petal sees film production as a great way to keep skilled labor in Louisiana, and to build up the middle class. His company employs up to 500 people at any given time, with wages that start at $20 an hour, more than three times the minimum wage.
It's possible because of another set of tax credits that encourage new film-related businesses. Alex Schott, Executive Director of the Louisiana Governor's Office of Film and Television, looks to established film-related businesses as a model. "Look at what Los Angeles has, you know, what are they used to having," he says, "what film services companies, what post-production houses, digital effects, digital media, and helping local companies build up so that we can become our own little filmmaking entity."
And movies shot in Louisiana don't have to be the ones set in the swamps or New Orleans' famous French Quarter. Schott points to the 2004 biopic Ray. "Not one scene of it takes place in Louisiana. But I would say about 90 to 100 percent of the film was shot in Louisiana, with us doubling for places like Chicago, like Atlanta. They can make the audience believe whatever they want, in terms of where the story takes place."
For Alex Schott and the other professionals in Louisiana's fledgling movie industry, it's not where the story takes place… but where the story's filmed.