A century before New Orleans was dubbed “Hollywood South,” the Crescent City was poised to become a major center for silent film studios. Producer Eve Abrams spoke with Tulane professor of communications Vicki Mayer about her Summer 2015 article for Louisiana Cultural Vistas Magazine, “Film Follies,” and about how the movie industry, culture, and the political economy intersect in Louisiana.
This isn’t the first time we’ve tangoed with the film economy. In fact, New Orleans was sighted multiple times in the early 1900’s by film creators from New York and Chicago who were looking for a southern location in order to open a film studio. Probably the most serious attempt was by Selig Polyscope Company, who were completely gung-ho that New Orleans was going to be the next New York for silent film production.
Within 6 months, he hopped the first train and established the first Hollywood film studio. But after those people with loads of film experience came and left, people in New Orleans got a bit of the film bug and decided they were going to do it on their own. And so there were two to three different studios between 1912 and 1919 that opened and closed in Bayou Saint John.
Why didn’t it work?
Well, I think a lot of it had to do with basic economics. The key to film production is really distribution. All the distributors were still in New York. And the reason I think we’re not so familiar with it today is that intervening the silent film economy and the global film economy was 70 years where Hollywood was the dominant location and production place, but it’s with the globalization of the film industry that suddenly you have all these Hollywood South, Hollywood North, Hollywood East, Hollywood Wests, popping up all over the world.
So with the silent film industry, Hollywood had not yet established itself?
That’s right. So New Orleans was actually looked towards – along with Jacksonville, Atlanta, Memphis – as potential sites where that companies from New York were going to go and move their operations because they were looking for places where they could produce year long, they were looking for places that were close to easy transportation because all the film stock was still produced in the Northeast. New Orleans fit the bill in really almost all the categories.
Can we talk about what’s going on currently going on with film in New Orleans?
The Louisiana region, a.k.a Hollywood South, since 2002, has had one of the most generous tax incentives for the production of major motion pictures and television series, and last year, Louisiana surpassed southern California in the production of major productions.
And can we talk a little about what those tax incentives are? Can you break it down? What are we giving them, and what are they giving us?
That’s the debate. The policy is: any production that has a budget over $300,000 can apply for what’s called a tradable tax credit. That credit gives them 30 percent off all of their expenditures made in Louisiana, plus an extra 5 percent for any labor that is contracted that has local residency.
So really, when a production company is seeking to produce, they’re no longer seeking necessarily the location that best fits the script, they’re seeking the location with the cheapest bottom line, and right now that bottom line is cheapest in Louisiana. But a production company that’s based in California doesn’t have a local Louisiana tax burden, so they have to off-load these credits. So the way they do it is there’s this whole other market that’s been created for taxpayers who often would owe a minimum of $5,000 or $10,000 in taxes to then bundle the tax credits, purchase them, and then get a tax credit for themselves.
So let’s say I work for an oil and gas company in Louisiana and I have very high tax burden. The policy is such that I can go through a film tax credit broker and purchase some of these tax credits.
So who are the companies that are actually benefiting?
It has not been transparent as to who buys these tax credits.
And so what are we supposedly gaining?
What the state is getting has been a moving target. The earliest policy in 1990 was really motivated around promoting the state. But as I said, productions can be anywhere now and New Orleans, our city, will stand in for Memphis, New York, Metropolis USA. So that rationale then gave way to another rationale that it creates local jobs. And we have been growing the local labor force, but not nearly to the capacity that would be needed, so a lot of the labor that is used for production actually comes from the outside.
So now they’ll talk about multiplier effects, and all the dollars that are spent here and not somewhere else. Whenever you have any visitor to the city, they take hotel rooms, they eat in nice restaurants, and those dollars are then combined in the state's estimates of what are the positive impacts of the film economy.
The thing about the film industry which is really interesting is that many people would support economic incentives for film industries that they wouldn’t for other industries. Culturally there’s an aura around the industry that allows people to have a kind of conversation that filters into economic policy.
But to make film production into the bad guy would not be my intention. It’s government’s job to try to try to mobilize that industry through some kind of investment. It’s a very typical public-private partnership strategy. That said, it’s an incentive. It’s not meant to be a permanent subsidy. Most of these film tax credit policies were started under the promise that at a certain point the industry would be established on its own and those would be sunset. Right now we’re 13 years into it and the sunset provisions were repealed by the state.
Was part of your intent: to have the current citizens of Louisiana be thinking about the past so that we think differently about the present?
I think what I want to do with all my research is have more of a public discussion around those industries. I’ve been disappointed that the debate has been so limited to people’s personal experiences – with seeing actors or getting a gig. I mean, those things are important, but I’d like us to have a larger view.
If we want to have a film economy here, what’s the way it should be structured so we avoid some of the excesses that we saw in the early 20th Century?
Vicki Mayer’s article on early film studios in New Orleans will appear in the Summer 2015 edition of Louisiana Cultural magazine and online at LouisianaCulturalVistas.org.