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Louisiana Uses Movies To Boost Economy

One part of the Louisiana economy not only survived Hurricane Katrina -- it has grown. VOA's Margaret Kennedy has this report on how Louisiana has become an important player in America's motion picture industry.

On the set of the new movie, "All the Kings Men," you could see the usual elements of a major Hollywood production.

Except, this movie was made in Louisiana, a place some people are calling "Hollywood South."

It stars Sean Penn, Jude Law and Kate Winslet and is based on a novel about Louisiana politics in the 1930s. Filming on location was an asset. However, the production came to New Orleans because of lucrative tax incentives, along with available and affordable technical talent and support.

In the past four years Louisiana has become the third largest center of moviemaking in the United States, behind California and New York. Louisiana got the idea from Canada after it lured productions away from Hollywood in the 1990s using tax incentives.

Alex Schott heads the Governor's Office for Film and Television Development. "These are some productions that have shot here on the soundstage, some storyboards. ‘Ray.’ ‘Runaway Jury.’ They built the courtroom in the soundstage here."

Moviemakers spend money with local companies and offer employment to people working as extras and technicians.

"To the state, it's very important for the workers, the laborers,” says Schott. “Because over the past few years, we've averaged about $40 million in total Louisiana payroll alone. If you get that TV series that shoots here over a period of eight or nine months out of the year, that's as close to full employment as you can get."

An old New Orleans high school pool was used for an upcoming film called "Pride." The story, set in Philadelphia, is about a swimming coach who leads an inner-city team to victory in the 1970s. It stars Terrence Howard.

The diversity of settings throughout Louisiana and its mild climate please producers. A sugarcane field could be in South Africa. An old roadside garage was the setting for the recent movie version of "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Malcolm Petal runs the Louisiana Institute of Film Technology. His company finds talent, brokers deals, and provides facilities such as a prop storage warehouse.

"Without an incentive program it's almost impossible to finance films and television,” says Petal. “So this really brought independent filmmaking, from a production angle, back to the United States, this Louisiana incentive."

The institute is working on plans for a large permanent technical facility in a warehouse district of New Orleans. It wants to avoid the problems it had last year, when it needed to quickly move seven productions to Shreveport and other Louisiana cities. The new facility will be adapted for potential flooding.

"It was an old railroad spur,” explains Petal, “a little bit higher ground. We got about 18 inches [half a meter] of water in the flood. So we will put parking and everything underneath, so you can put cars on the top afterwards. There's a few little things we can make it that would be smart redesign when you live in a bowl in a hurricane zone."

New Orleans is well known for interesting graveyards and strange tales about spirits and the occult. In the film "Interview with the Vampire," Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise got into ghoulish treachery filming on location at a real plantation called Oak Alley. The production shot for several weeks and involved elaborate costumes and makeup.

Zeb Mayhew manages Oak Alley, a popular tourist attraction where visitors can come by Mississippi riverboat from the city. He says the fee for a movie company to use the plantation can be up to $40,000, depending on how much normal business is disrupted by filming.

"It's a function of the involvement and what they intend to do when they are here,” says Mr. Mayhew. “We learned this kind of the hard way when we started doing filming. They would say, 'Oh, we're going to make you a star, you are going to be in our film, and whoa, whoa, you don't want to charge us very much.' We learned early on that the camera can really hone in on the beauty of the setting of our trees or something and you don't even know you were at Oak Alley."

Until now, tourism has been the main business of New Orleans, a city known for its music and food. Tourism and its infrastructure were hurt badly by last year's hurricane. The make-believe world of film and television is providing real paychecks to help the city and state recover.