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Hollywood flees Louisiana for better tax deals

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Trouble In Hollywood South

NEW ORLEANS — It’s the middle of a recent work day inside a Hollywood-style movie studio in downtown New Orleans, and Trey Burvant turns off the lights on an empty Stage 1.

He heads over to stages 2 and 3, and they’re empty, too.

“Not much going on,” Burvant says inside Second Line Stages studio. “Nothing going on.”

He’s a Louisiana-raised actor and producer who came back from the East Coast when the movie industry started to take off a decade ago in his home state, thanks to generous tax breaks for moviemakers.

But now the slick $32 million state-of-the-art studio Burvant runs — with its air conditioning turned off, its stages dark and its empty parking lot — is a forlorn window into the volatile business of America’s race to attract movie production with tax breaks.

Louisiana’s once-booming film industry — dubbed “Hollywood South” — was off by as much as 90 percent this past year, according to the Louisiana Film Entertainment Association. The drop is all attributed to the state’s decision last July to wind down its generous incentives, scaring off moviemakers.

Showbiz in the state was booming as late as last year, thanks to an incentive program that offered productions tax credits equal to 30 percent of their costs.

Between 2008 and mid-2015, more than 1,100 productions were filmed in the state, among them box-office and Oscar-winning hits like “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained.”

The tax incentive program had become so successful that Louisiana even outpaced California in the number of major studio productions — 18 to 15 — in 2013, according to FilmL.A. Inc., a Los Angeles nonprofit.

On the flip side, success did not come cheaply: Louisiana also dished out about $1.4 billion in tax credits in the past eight years.

“We were the dog that caught the Cadillac,” said Jan Moller, the director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a nonpartisan group that monitors state spending. “It was unaffordable.”

And catastrophic budget news — a drop in oil prices that contributed to a state budget shortfall of $1.6 billion last year — put an end to the largesse. Louisiana’s politicians decided that halting tax breaks to Hollywood actors and film crews was better than firing teachers and closing hospitals. So they capped tax credit payments at $180 million a year.

And just like that, film crews went elsewhere — to Georgia, Kentucky and Canada, among other hot spots.

“The producers just run the numbers. If it pays off, then they’re in Louisiana, or they’re in Vancouver. It’s purely a bottom-line kind of thing to Hollywood,” said Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian at UCLA.

Hollywood has a history of going wherever it’s cheapest to make a movie.

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles was an escape from the hefty costs of New York City and its unions, high prices and bad weather. Then there was a wave of moviemaking in Europe and elsewhere around the world after World War II.

Since the early 2000s, Hollywood has been lured by tax breaks from one place to another — from New Mexico to Michigan to Louisiana. At least 36 states now offer some kind of tax incentive — but that number is down from a few years ago, according to Entertainment Partners, a financial services company for the entertainment industry.

Other states besides Louisiana have put the brakes on.

Last year, Michigan and Alaska chose to end their tax breaks because they were deemed too expensive. North Carolina has put a $30 million cap on how much it spends a year. Programs in New Jersey, Arizona and Iowa have also ended recently, according to Entertainment Partners. Florida’s program ends in July.

Louisiana’s film industry remains hopeful. The $180 million cap is still very generous, and it could be lifted in 2018; also, a backlog of credits owed by the state, which has held up new productions, may be cleared sooner than first feared.

But for now, moviemakers have been leaving Louisiana.

Will Greenfield, a 38-year-old line producer, is part of the horde of camera assistants, grips, electricians, actors and producers moving from Louisiana to Georgia and elsewhere — chasing work wherever it’s popping up.

“Had the incentives not changed, we would not have left,” Greenfield from a sound stage in Atlanta.

He and his wife sold their home in New Orleans in January and moved to Atlanta after a decade of film work in Louisiana.

Shortly after they moved to Atlanta, he said, four industry friends were staying at their house — all of them from Louisiana and looking for work.

“And they found work right away,” he said. “It’s an exodus.”