To listen to Brian Friedman’s interview with Katie Williams on WWNO-FM, click here.
While 1938’s The Buccaneer generally isn’t mentioned among director Cecil B. DeMille’s greatest works — and, in fact, is probably better known for its 1958 remake starring the famously bald Yul Brynner — it did signal the beginning of major motion film production in New Orleans.
For the next 60 years, however, that production could best be described as sporadic, with a Pelican Brief or Big Easy causing a minor stir in town every so often.
But that would change 10 years ago with the passage of Louisiana’s film tax incentive program.
“The first year, 2002, there were maybe four feature films and television shows that chose New Orleans,” said Katie Williams, director of Film New Orleans in the mayor’s office of cultural economy. “And now you’re looking at 2004, it was 16; and then it just continued to increase and increase and increase, so now, last year, we had 46 feature films and television shows choose New Orleans for their filming destination. So you’re building an industry, which is what the tax credits were designed to do.”
And that’s been good for the local economy, as businesses have sprouted up to support the growing industry.
“Everything from a camera house to prop house to costuming to port o’ lets to security, catering … pretty much everything a movie needs at this point in the city can be found,” said Williams.
In fact, the vast majority of the work on local productions is now done by locals.
“When a movie comes here, they’re not bringing much; they’re bringing what we call the above the line, which is the directors, the producers, the people who are setting the creative vision,” Williams said, “but every crew below the line, which tends to be about 150 to 200 people for every movie, are local citizens, our neighbors, our coworkers who are working in this industry providing not only the services, but also the skills.”
Over the years, other states have sought to mimic Louisiana’s success by offering similar tax credit programs, but it hasn’t seemed to slow the local industry’s growth. Williams cites the relative simplicity of the Louisiana program, which gives a clear, across-the-board percent tax credit for any Louisiana expenditure, plus an additional 5 percent for any local crew hire, as well as the fact that Louisiana credits are transferrable and non-capped.
But it may also go beyond the numbers.
“I think both crew and talent like to be here,” said Williams. “They enjoy our culture, they enjoy the music, food, hotels, the accommodations; I think we see all the time that some people prefer to go downtown and stay at one of our beautiful hotels, but some of them would rather stay in a home in the Garden District or the French Quarter or further Uptown.”
Williams also thinks New Orleans’ laissez-faire attitude toward life – and to celebrities – as another attraction.
“For whatever reason, New Orleanians aren’t crazy” when it comes to celebrities, she said. “Tom Cruise can walk the French Quarter and no one’s going to run him down for an autograph. Brad Pitt and Angelina can have a home here and no one’s going chase down Brad Pitt on his bicycle.”
As for the future of the film industry in New Orleans, Williams said she sees continued growth from within.
“I think the hope is that, as we continue to grow our infrastructure and our community here, you’ll see success coming out of our local industry, having a movie that’s written and produced and directed by a local person from the state of Louisiana.”
Williams pointed to the success of the locally produced Beasts of the Southern Wild, which has earned acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival and recently garnered four Academy Award nominations, as an example.
“You had a film that was written about us by someone who was a part of this community that was produced and written and done wholly out of here,” said Williams. “I think that’s the point of the credits.”
Brian Friedman writes about Hollywood South for NolaVie, and produces monthly features for WWNO-FM, 89.9, the New Orleans NPR affiliate.