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Katrina Fails to Halt Louisiana Film Business


Film and television studios are expected to spend more than $400 million in Louisiana this year. The state's TV and movie industry has actually grown since Hurricane Katrina, making it one of Louisiana's most important economic engines, as Eve Troeh reports.

Unidentified Man #1: From the top. And roll it.

Unidentified Man #2: Roll it.

TROEH: 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, but producers found a better deal in Louisiana and rewrote the script to shoot here. They'll get up to 25 percent of the budget back as a tax rebate, including discounts for every local person they hire. Ceon Chapin(ph) is the film's line producer.

Ms. CEON CHAPIN (Line Producer, "The Mysterious Case of Benjamin Button"): The movie wasn't going to get made without the tax credit, the truth of the matter is. It's worth about $25 million to us, but we all feel it's better. The film's better because we're in Louisiana.

TROEH: One reason is the people. She says Louisiana has amazing background talent. The choir in the movie is from a local church. But locals are landing speaking roles too.

Mr. LANCE NICHOLS (Actor): (As The Preacher) This is a man who has optimism and is humble. Believing it so. We're all children in the eyes of God.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Mr. NICHOLS: Lance Nichols, I'm playing The Preacher. I'm from New Orleans. Spent about 24 years in Los Angeles but recently moved back since Katrina. I mean I was doing fine in L.A. I worked mostly in television. But to come back and have opportunities in features, which is what I really want to do more of, it was perfect timing.

TROEH: 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 here a few years ago called L.I.F.T. Productions.

Mr. MALCOLM PETAL (Created L.I.F.T. Productions): All that vacant land. We're going to put this there. I'm putting a very pretty picture in front of a window.

TROEH: He's building an 18-acre complex in New Orleans that will house five soundstages and a film school. Petal used to be a lawyer for oil and gas companies here. Now dressed L.A. casual in jeans and a baseball cap, he's positively evangelical about the film industry.

Mr. PETAL: There's a job for every trade. You know, there's carpenters and electricians and hairdressers. And every business in town gets used. The dry cleaners and the hotels and the car rental services. So the money gets out of the community fast. It's non-polluting, unlike a lot of other businesses that we could attract down here.

TROEH: 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. It's possible because of another set of tax credits that encourage new film-related businesses.

Alex Schott is executive director of the Louisiana governor's office for film and television.

Mr. ALEX SCHOTT (Executive Director, Governor's Office for Film and Television, Louisiana): The model is to look at what Los Angeles has, you know, what are they used to having. What film service 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.

TROEH: And he points out movies shot in Louisiana don't have to be set in the French Quarter or the swamps. Take, for example, the 2004 film "Ray."

Mr. SCHOTT: Actually, "Ray," not one scene of it takes place in Louisiana. But I would say that 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.

TROEH: So if you go see the new film "Factory Girl," that's not New York where Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick are gallivanting around, but downtown Shreveport, Louisiana.

For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eve Troeh was WWNO's first-ever News Director, hired to start the local news department in 2013. She left WWNO in 2017 to serve as Sustainability Editor at Marketplace.