New Orleans We may think of the film industry as Hollywood, Bollywood, and many other localized markets from country to country whether Nigeria, Italy, or even Poland, recently winning its first Oscar in the foreign film category. In reality, the film industry is a floating crap game that knows no country and whose only motto is something on the order of “globalization rocks!” For all of the Clint Eastwood, Will Smith, Brad Pitt, and other films that make goo-gobs of money, there are the thousands and thousands of films that barely breakeven or exist only as tax shelters for investors and producers.
Filmmakers for all the talk of art and culture on awards night live from film to film on whether or not they can finish this project and finance the next. The search for tax credits in the United States has become the search for the holy grail of where they can shoot a film, and over the last decade a favored location has been Louisiana and even New Orleans. Think HBO’s “True Blood,” “True Detectives,” and “Treme.” Think hundreds of movies and even the new top ranked NCIS spinoff, “NCIS – New Orleans.” The reason is simple. The state legislature in 2002 passed something called the Louisiana Motion Picture Tax Incentive Act, quickly making the state the number one film location in the USA, because they had just created the biggest tax giveaway in the country. We might be a poor, broke-ass state, but that didn’t mean that we couldn’t give away the store to anyone who would even pretend to offer us a little something something.
The package was a rich one, resembling an everyday “gift bag” for the stars and wannabes. It’s a long list: 30% investor tax credit for all productions with over a $300,000 budget to be spent in Louisiana; 25% tax credit for digital media; 25% for sound recording; 25% for historic preservation, if they bother; and 10 to 25% for any live entertainment. Across the nation there has been a gold rush for the film industry as states have competed with who can give away the most, but as state revenues get shakier some, like North Carolina, are taking some of the breaks back, and, even in Louisiana there are clouds forming over the gravy train.
Oh, and at the bottom of the barrel the state even gave a 5% credit for any Louisiana employee that happened to be hired. The Debbie Downers that can add simple sums or are professors and study these things are pretty critical about the fact that the state may get a lot of publicity, but darned few jobs. There seems little doubt that these tax credits are at best a lost leader.
Living in New Orleans, especially in an older neighborhood along the Mississippi River, like Bywater, we have gotten used to film trucks and crews taking the parking on our street and operating 24/7 along our blocks. The chase scene in Treme was the most dramatic excitement, but mostly it’s just “life in the city.”
Nonetheless, a couple of weeks ago when a location scout put his card in our mailbox, I was curious enough to get up close and personal and see this film stuff from the inside, so I called and said, “come on by.” Turned out they were scouting for a Malayalam-language movie from Kerala in south India called Chasing Moksha. The scout was from Jersey with roots in Jamaica, the scene designer was from Monterrey, Mexico, now living in New York City, the director was from Kerala with the main actors flying over from India, and the rest of the crew was a hodgepodge. Strangely they liked our house for part of the filming, describing it as reminding them of a Wes Anderson set, which I guess was meant as a compliment, but it’s hard to tell. More surprisingly they met every condition my companera demanded of them, as did I, so in our ongoing quest for knowledge and battle against boredom, we will soon embark on a crash course in learning way more about filmmaking than any of us might have imagined and doing so first hand over the coming days.