Location, Location, Location

A look at five places where Hollywood happens outside of California

By Mark Dundas Wood
November 03, 2008

We all acknowledge that Hollywood is as much a state of mind as a place on the map. Now, with various states passing film-production incentive measures and independent moviemakers dwelling in all corners of the country, that sentiment has never seemed truer. Understandably, as The New York Times recently noted, there are critics of these programs — increasingly vocal, especially in light of the world’s current economic mess. Yet other voices continue to support the basic idea of spreading the tinsel among various towns.

In light of today’s production climate, Back Stage recently investigated the health (or lack thereof) of five important moviemaking markets around the country.

New Mexico: Dawn at the Oasis

Casting director Jo Edna Boldin began making forays into New Mexico when the state implemented an attractive film-incentives package — including a 25 percent tax rebate and a loan program offering up to $15 million per project. About three years ago, things became busy enough that she figured she could leave her home in Austin, Texas, to pursue a career in New Mexico full time. She resettled in Taos but set up shop 130 miles away in Albuquerque; Boldin finally sold her Austin home a year ago. “It took me that long to really believe that it was going to continue here,” she says. “And it has.”

In recent years, she has done local casting for such top-drawer productions as 3:10 to Yuma and In the Valley of Elah and location casting for the Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men. Now she has her fingers in the television spinoff of another Oscar winner: Crash (for the Starz network). Small-scale projects have also proliferated in New Mexico, including “vampire/zombie things.” Says Boldin, “It’s the top crust as well as the indie low budget.”

Albuquerque — named No. 2 (after Austin) in MovieMaker magazine’s 2008 list of America’s top movie cities — is the center of the state’s filmmaking boom. However, Boldin services projects statewide. For instance, some new spaghetti Westerns starring Terence Hill are slated to film soon near Santa Fe. Infrastructure is catching up with demand, at least in Albuquerque. “We have a luxurious, big, state-of-the art studio — a real studio with maybe six sound stages — and talks of building a couple more,” Boldin notes.

The talent roster — of actors and crew — has strengthened in the years since Boldin arrived. She searches for performers in an extended geographical area that includes Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Much of the casting for No Country, for instance, was done in Texas.

One might think the Southwest would be too hot for year-round filming, but Boldin says the temperature has stayed relatively mild this year. And it’s a dry desert heat. New York actor Rosa Arredondo fell in love with Albuquerque’s climate and terrain last year, while filming Husband for Hire, a TV movie for the Oxygen network. “For this particular film, I had to straighten my hair, and I have very curly hair,” says Arredondo. “So I was thinking if it’s not dry, this is going to be a nightmare.”

Louisiana: The Other “LA”

“Initially, everything moved up here, after the hurricane,” explains Ryan Glorioso, a casting director in Shreveport, La., who worked in New Orleans before Katrina hit in August 2005. These days, Glorioso notes, a good deal of film and TV work has returned to southeastern Louisiana. But things are certainly still going strong in Shreveport. (It is No. 3 on MovieMaker’s list.) “I’m not a producer,” Glorioso says. “But I think it’s a dream to shoot in Shreveport, with the love that the city has for the film industry here. It’s been very welcoming. There’s no traffic here. It’s very easy to get around. There are beautiful locations.”

This spring Millennium Films broke ground in the city’s Ledbetter Heights neighborhood on the first phase of a full-service studio, which will eventually comprise 20 acres and include three sound stages. “They’ll get a huge incentive from the state for doing that, because they are creating a permanent residence here to make movies,” says Glorioso. (The state tax credit for infrastructure development is 40 percent, 25 percent for film production.)

Among Glorioso’s many recent projects in Shreveport are the Logo series Sordid Lives and the feature Streets of Blood. In the latter, Shreveport stands in for post-Katrina New Orleans. The city boasts a massive water tank (Louisiana Wave Studio), so for Streets, a set was built into the tank to replicate flooded New Orleans.

Relatively few members of the Screen Actors Guild live in Louisiana, which is a right-to-work state, and when the boom began, Shreveport had few experienced film performers. Casting directors depended on local theatre actors, along with absolute beginners. “I’ve seen folks who came out to be extras a few times and decided they were going to chase their dream,” says Glorioso. “I’m seeing them start to get parts — speaking parts — and join SAG, whereas there’s probably some guy sitting in New York or Los Angeles who’s been pounding away for years who’s still looking for that part.”

Nick Gomez was sort of that guy. After graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, he went back and forth between Los Angeles and New York and at times considered leaving the business altogether. He first went to New Orleans in 2004 at the invitation of his brother, who was being decommissioned from the Navy there. “I dropped off my résumé at the first agency I found in the phone book,” Gomez recalls. “I went and put my headshot and résumé under the door. And before I was around the corner, they called me up and were begging for me to come back in.”

Gomez left the area when Katrina hit but returned in December 2007 and has been working steadily since — and not, he emphasizes, just in “under-fives.” He recently finished a sizable role opposite Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Cage is one star, Gomez reports, who is committed to bringing big-budget projects to storm-recovering southeastern Louisiana.

Florida: Not Exactly Swamped

Moviemaking has always had its ups and downs in Florida. Certainly, the camera loves the quality of Florida light. In the early 1900s, silent films were cranked out in Jacksonville studios — before the action moved west to equally sunny California. Ellen Jacoby (The Truman Show, Parenthood) started 22 years ago as a casting director in Miami Beach, at about the time Miami Vice transformed the area. That series proved a boon: Buildings were refurbished and tourism flourished. “It was L.A., New York, and Miami,” Jacoby says. “Those were the hubs for filming, and we got our fair share.”

In recent years, though, work has fallen off, and the state’s relatively weak incentives program has been eclipsed by those of other states. Then, earlier this year, the Florida legislature slashed the incentives budget for 2008-09 from $25 million to $5 million. “This is probably not going to be a good year for Miami,” Jacoby projects. Actor Antoni Corone, who lives in Hollywood, Fla., describes the state of filmmaking in the state as “a past-tense scenario.”

Ohio-born Corone has been active in the Florida film scene since his early 20s, when he stumbled onto the set of Porky’s 2 at a beach where he was working as a lifeguard. He eventually learned that he would have to branch out geographically to make a living in the business full time. “I had a choice to do what many Floridians have done: to chase [work] from Orlando down to Miami and then even inclusive of the Carolinas and Dallas or to go into a different market altogether.”

The first option proved impossible: “I tried going back and forth to Orlando, which is about a three-hour drive, for a couple auditions for series things. By the time I got out of the car and walked into the audition, I was so surly that I couldn’t even be centered. I said, ‘If I’m going to invest that much time, let me take a plane to New York for something that matters.'” He spends part of the year in each market — calling himself “biclimatic.”

Some of Corone’s biggest film roles (Reservation Road, We Own the Night) have been shot in the Northeast. But he lands roles in Florida also (the upcoming I Love You Phillip Morris). He and his wife have preteen children, and he has no desire to leave Florida entirely.

There are at least two bright spots these days in the otherwise-downbeat Florida film scene. The first is the Miami-based USA Network series Burn Notice (now in Season 2). The second is the burgeoning market in independent filmmaking.

Most indie producers cannot afford Jacoby’s casting services, but if a script has rich characterizations, she sometimes works free of charge, instructing filmmakers to give her fee to actors. “It’s good for actors to be working and practicing, even if it’s not for a lot of money,” she says. “I know that these actors will be even better when they come back to me to read for something else.”

Massachusetts: Bean Town Boom

For years, casting director Angela Peri’s company, Boston Casting, coasted along, depending largely on commercials and industrials to stay afloat. “Every year, the three casting directors in town would vie to do the one or two feature films that came in,” Peri recalls. “They would come to Boston to shoot the foliage, Harvard Square, the rowers on the Charles River — mostly the foliage.”

And then, in 2006, Massachusetts adopted its film-incentives program, featuring a sales tax exemption as well as payroll and production-expense tax credits in the range of 20 to 25 percent. Peri attended a ceremony at which the governor signed the legislation into law: “I turned to the person next to me and said, ‘There goes my life as I know it.’ And I was so right.”

Among the projects that have taken advantage of the new Boston moviemaking climate are Pink Panther 2 (starring Steve Martin), Lonely Maiden (Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken), The Surrogates (Bruce Willis), Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Kevin James), This Side of the Truth (Ricky Gervais), and a remake of The Women that’s a virtual who’s who of female Hollywood. Also, Martin Scorsese shot his upcoming Shutter Island there. “He was living here for 16 weeks,” Peri says. “He was not going to New York every night, you know. He was eating lunch in Taunton, of all places. I don’t even know where Taunton is.”

Peri says industry folk she knows in Los Angeles are relocating to New England to get work, which she finds amusing. Meanwhile, local actors who have struggled for years “in the New York shadow” are finally getting their due, she says. “Even actors I wouldn’t necessarily think of for principal roles I brought in, because they had the right look,” she says. “And then they’d snag the role, and I was so happy for them.”

Actor Roy Souza, a Boston native and a SAG member since 1995, is jubilant about the recent boom. He notes that it is not just high-profile projects that have flocked to Massachusetts but also small-scale indies. He recently completed significant roles in the low-budget We Got the Beat, shot in Worcester, and Lasse Hallström’s Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, starring Richard Gere.

Souza says he believes that when Scorsese and company opted to shoot the interiors for the Boston-set The Departed in New York City, legislators felt compelled to pass the incentives program. Souza says he knew the incentives were paying off when Pink Panther 2 came to Boston. “The story line had nothing at all to do with Boston,” he says, noting that the city stood in for London and Paris.

Massachusetts still has a ways to go in developing its moviemaking infrastructure. There is one soundstage facility in Canton (17 miles south of Boston), says Peri, with plans to build two more, both on the South Shore. Meanwhile, production companies working in Boston create makeshift studios in old warehouses.

For a time, Peri fretted that other states with attractive incentives programs — Michigan, for instance, which recently passed a highly generous package — would steal some of Massachusetts’ thunder. But she thinks Boston’s cosmopolitan character will continue to attract projects. Alluding to Pink Panther 2, she notes, “I don’t think you can make Michigan look like Paris.”

Washington, Oregon: Waking Up and Smelling the Coffee

MovieMaker magazine named Seattle No. 7 and Portland, Ore., No. 8 on its 2008 list of movie cities. Nevertheless, the Pacific Northwesterners Back Stage interviewed tended to rank Portland as the busier of the two.

Casting director Jodi Rothfield opened her Seattle casting office two weeks before starting work on 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle. This may have seemed an auspicious moment for a city boasting a deep acting pool (due largely to its thriving theatre scene). But Canada, meanwhile, began luring U.S. film producers with incentive offers. “Once they set up in Vancouver, we were kind of over in terms of the film market, because Hollywood became ensconced there,” says Rothfield. Eventually, Washington passed its own incentives package, but things in the state remain rather slow. “We’ve done a little bit too late to catch up with the rest of the world,” Rothfield says.

Independent film, however, flourishes in Washington (Rothman calls the state “Indie Land”). And the University of Washington’s actor-training program graduates top-notch actors, many of whom elect to stay in the area to do theatre. Says Rothman, “That’s great for us, because we get to pull them in [for film work].”

In Portland, 145 miles south, local actors benefit from Oregon’s incentives program, which — unlike many other states’ packages — involves a cash rebate (20 percent on goods and services and up to 16.2 percent on wages paid to production personnel). Oregon, like New Mexico, has no sales tax, which intensifies the effect of the rebates.

Lana Veenker has been casting in Portland for nine years. Before she arrived, Oregon had been doing moderately well in attracting projects (including the 1995 UPN television series Nowhere Man). But as with Seattle, much of the work was being siphoned off by British Columbia.

These days things are looking decidedly up. Veenker recently worked on the teen vampire project Twilight and the Stephen Belber feature Management, starring Jennifer Aniston. Veenker says she believes Gov. Ted Kulongoski “gets it” when it comes to the benefits of film production. “A big feature film will come into someplace like Madras, which is on the edge of an Indian reservation,” she says. “They’ll come in and bring Jennifer Aniston and drop a couple million dollars and not leave any mess behind. It’s kind of a good deal.”

Oregon’s cinema culture is also enhanced by the presence of two major filmmakers. Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes call Portland home, and some of Van Sant’s recent films (Elephant, Paranoid Park) have been shot locally.

It remains tough to make a full-time living as a film actor in Oregon. Portland-based Katie O’Grady flies regularly to Los Angeles for auditions. Still, 80 percent of her acting work is Oregon-generated. She appeared in Management, as well as The Auteur from Portland director James Westby (featured at 2008’s Tribeca Film Festival).

O’Grady contends that Portland boasts a world-class crew, flexible enough to move from major studio projects to low-budget indies. For lifestyle reasons, she says, many crew members — like the city’s actors — choose to cobble together a living in the Northwest rather than endure the more harried life of Manhattan or Los Angeles.

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