A burned-out New Orleans East distribution center that has been transformed into a film production studio celebrated its grand opening Wednesday, with officials pointing to several projects that already have used the facility as signs of the demand for the project and its impact on the local economy.
The ribbon-cutting for FilmWorks New Orleans was held in a cavernous — and for the moment empty — warehouse space even as its latest production, a Disney television show, was filming elsewhere in the giant building.
It’s just the latest of four productions that have used the space.
“We’ve taken a piece of real estate that was sort of sitting and turned it into something that will encourage filmmakers to stay,” said George Steiner, president of FilmWorks New Orleans.
Work began on the project in September. Built in the former MacFrugal’s distribution center that burned down in 1996, the studio includes a 20,000-square-foot stage that can be configured into sets, a 406,000-square-foot backlot, two 92,000-square-foot floors of workspace and acres of outdoor space.
“It’s a good thing for New Orleans and a good thing for New Orleans East,” said City Councilman James Gray, who represents the area.
No public money was used for the project, and it will not receive any tax incentives, Steiner said. He declined to discuss how much it cost to repair and build out the space.
Although the studio itself did not receive any subsidies, the films that use it will benefit from Louisiana’s generous media incentives. And with those tax breaks under scrutiny by lawmakers amid the state’s budget crisis, those cheering the opening of FilmWorks took the opportunity Wednesday to tout the importance of the movie industry to the state and local economy.
“As we’re looking for a solution to the budget crisis, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Greater New Orleans Inc. President and CEO Michael Hecht said.
Bryan Batt, the New Orleans-born actor perhaps best known for his role on the AMC series “Mad Men,” said it used to be unthinkable that Hollywood would set up shop in New Orleans. But it has, he said, and it has brought movie stars and workers who shop, dine and buy houses in the city.
“I know some people don’t understand — I don’t really understand — how the tax credits work,” Batt said. “I just like them and want to keep them.”
The FilmWorks project provides infrastructure to ensure New Orleans has the capacity to deal with the number of productions that want to film in the city, meaning they won’t have to go to rival cities such as Atlanta or Toronto for a shoot, Steiner said.
And the project itself represents a physical investment in the area, Hecht said.
“This is what I love to see, when you see actual brick and mortar being built,” he said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.