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Movie migration

GO EAST: The cast and crew of ABC’s upcoming drama <em>Secrets & Lies</em> film scenes in Wilmington, N.C. (Matt Born/The Star-News/AP)


ESCAPE FROM L.A.: Matsuno filming <em>Ella</em> in Tennessee. (left)

Associated Press/Photo by ulie Jacobson

SIN CITY: A porn director prepares a set at his studio in Las Vegas.


Movie migration

Filmmakers, disillusioned with costly California, are finding new venues—and tax breaks—in the South

Hollywood evokes images of stars waltzing down red carpets or leaving handprints and footprints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Storied studios—Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers—were star machines. But while the industry still gathers in L.A. for the Academy Awards each year, most of the real work is done in less-glitzy towns—New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Charlotte. 

Filmmaker Myles Matsuno’s experience is typical. He found a deserted building in Glendale, Calif., to set the pivotal scene in his short film, Ella—but when Matsuno asked how much the location would cost for an eight-hour shoot, the owner pulled out a stunning price tag: $16,000, not including the thousands of dollars needed to secure film permits in the area.

With a budget of merely $20,000, Matsuno turned his sights elsewhere, landing on the functioning Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga, Tenn., which charged him about $1,000. Three of the theater’s technicians lit the scene for $300. The local film commission eagerly recruited free and inexpensive help for him at nearby colleges, including his alma mater, Lee University. And with permission from local businesses, the city allowed him to shoot anywhere he wanted without film permits. All in all, he saved $40,000 by flying his team to Tennessee, and ended up with a beautifully shot and scored film about lost love.

Matsuno and Ella aren’t the only ones leaving the twinkling lights of Tinseltown for greener pastures in the South. Of the 41 big budget films released in the last two years, only one was filmed exclusively in California. The rest have been lured away by large tax incentives in states like Georgia, Louisiana, and New York. For the first time last year, Louisiana bumped the Golden State as the moviemaking capital of the world, even sticking palm trees into a nondescript street to provide the location for Battle: Los Angeles.

The battle for production began in the mid-90s as Canada baited filmmakers with tax benefits and low exchange rates. Louisiana joined the fray in 2002, offering a 30 percent film tax incentive with no cap on how much money films can get back, a gamble that cost the state $168 million in 2012. Today, about 40 other states have followed suit, offering a total of $1.5 billion a year in film tax incentives. Many states promise transferable credits, which means producers can sell credits in excess of what they owe the state.

As a result of all this competition, California lost more than 16,000 film-related jobs between 2004 and 2012. Los Angeles touts the advantages of Hollywood production: good weather, talented professionals, and film industry infrastructure. But increasingly that’s not enough, especially in light of California’s dismal business environment. It costs more to rent buildings in L.A. Film permits are expensive and wait times are long. Powerful unions up the price of actors, extras, and technical personnel. 

Matsuno describes the hurdles he faced on one project. After paying the city of Burbank a couple thousand dollars to film on a street corner, he faced regulations about when, where, and how he could film. If he used a dolly or any other device with wheels, he had to pay more. He wasn’t allowed to step into the street to get a wide shot of the area, and one store owner wouldn’t allow him to shoot his store name.

Dominic Bartolone, a camera assistant who worked on the TV show Southland and the movie Rush Hour 3, now has to leave Los Angeles at least once a year to work on projects in other states. He takes his family with him on out-of-state shoots, which usually last six months, but says the “gypsy lifestyle” is difficult, especially with his need to find support and services for his young daughter with Down syndrome. His wife homeschools, so finding housing quickly is also important. When Bartolone does find work in L.A., it’s typically on low-budget productions where his pay is cut in half.

Bartolone soon plans to pack up his family one last time and move to either Louisiana or Georgia. From his 11 years in the business, he’s learned that filmmakers follow the money, and opportunities are limited in the Golden State. California recently passed a new package of tax incentives tripling the amount of money available for tax credits, from $100 million to $320 million, but it looks to be too little, too late. Bartolone says, “I don’t think California will ever have the movie industry it once had.”

A cleaner L.A.

Christians are happy to see one industry leaving Los Angeles: the porn industry. A 2012 Los Angeles County law required all porn actors to use condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS and other diseases. Since then, the number of permits for porn production has fallen 90 percent to just 40 permits last year, according to FilmL.A. The multibillion-dollar porn industry sued the county, claiming the condom requirement violated the First Amendment right to free speech. A U.S. district judge disagreed, and the case will move to a federal appeals court later this year. —A.L.


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  • WFerguson
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:48 pm

    The dispersal from Hollywood for financial reasons will ultimately be good for faith reasons as well. With production costs low, Christian filmmakers will have a much easier time getting their movies made and distributed. Of course, it will take quality and Christian movies have been hit and miss, but an increase in hits is certainly much more possible when production costs are low. Also, the less Hollywood is the center of movie making, the less the liberal culture of Hollywood will be the center of movie making.