As the threat of major Hollywood strikes continues to hover over the local economy, there's no indication that the stockpiling of content by film producers has generated a rush of activity in Los Angeles, traditionally a favorite location site.
The number of feature film location shoots in L.A. actually decreased by 9.9 percent in 2000, compared with 1999. While some of that decrease can be blamed on the disruptive influence of the Democratic National Convention last summer, the number of on-location film shoots in L.A. during the fourth quarter, long after the convention, was virtually unchanged from the fourth quarter of 1999. There were 2,661 on-location film days in October through December 2000 vs. 2,652 days in the like period of 1999, according to the Entertainment Industry Development Corp.
The flatness suggests that, if there is indeed a tremendous increase in movie and TV production underway, the additional work is being done elsewhere. The need to make as many movies as possible as quickly as possible has thus far apparently failed to compensate for the added expense of making them in Los Angeles.
"The general trend is still runaway production, and the possibility of a strike hasn't picked that up," said Tom Gray, a senior advisor with the entertainment practice of Deloitte & Touche LLP. "The principal photography is a manufacturing process and the studios will go to the cheapest place they can find, whether it is elsewhere in the U.S., in Canada, or in Prague or Lithuania."
The affect of shooting in the L.A. area can't be denied: Filmed entertainment features, television, commercials, music videos and the like contributed $8.3 billion to the local economy in the last three months of the year, according to the EIDC.
Threatening that activity are possible walkouts by the Writers Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The WGA contract with the studios and networks expires at the end of April, and the actors' contracts are up at the end of June. An early agreement on key issues in any of the negotiations is unlikely at this point. Bracing for the walkouts, major studios have put as many movies into production as they possible could, hoping to have enough inventory to keep theaters supplied if and when production is shut down.
But anecdotal evidence suggests that the biggest windfalls of the stepped-up production activity are occurring in Vancouver and Toronto, which were already benefiting from runaway production, as well as in less fashionable parts of the United States.
"I came to L.A. from North Carolina because it has been really slow there for the last two years," said Jolly Dale, a television producer who is developing a new series, "Casey Jones," for Spelling Entertainment. "But this fall, two huge movies went into production in North Carolina, one starring John Travolta and one starring Martin Lawrence. That's not normal and it shows that the studios are putting movies on the fast track and going to a place where there is a crew available."
Dale has found herself in hot demand since arriving in L.A., but not for local jobs. She had four offers to work on productions in Canada. In fact, some Hollywood insiders believe that any extra production work done here will be undertaken only because Canadian stages and the crews are booked solid and unable to take on any additional work.
"Vancouver is filled to the gills right now," said one studio executive who asked not to be identified. "There is just too much incentive to not shoot in L.A., but I'm still surprised there's not more going on here. I expect that by March it will also be insane here."
Indeed, there are early indications that activity is already picking up on the TV side of the business. The 3,273 on-location TV production days in Los Angeles during the fourth quarter of 2000 represents a 15.0 percent increase from the 2,846 days in the like period of 1999, according to EIDC.
Television networks have been quietly stockpiling extra episodes of current series they expect to have back next fall, and much of this work is done in L.A. Since the TV season ends at the end of the spring, the networks will be showing reruns throughout the summer anyway. Reportedly, Fox Television has 400 extra episodes at the ready in the event of a strike.
The networks don't appear to be in a rush to have new, untested material in the can before the strike, though.
"Nothing has been accelerated as far as I have seen," said Dale. "Things pretty much follow the usual cycle, with new shows being pitched in the fall and a pilot getting shot around Christmas. Somewhere around April, the networks decide which shows they want to put into production over the summer for the start of the fall season."
Still, Dale expects networks and cable channels to continue ordering extra episodes in the coming months. That way, rather than wrapping up for the season by the end of next month, they will keep production going up until the beginning of a strike.
Indeed, local unions report that their members have been getting very busy of late and all soundstages are booked for the first quarter of the year, which indicates that local production may finally be shifting into high gear.
"A lot of things are just getting underway now in order to wrap up by the end of June," said Greg Krizman, a spokesman for the Screen Actors Guild. "The major constraint on production is the availability of the heavy-hitter stars they need to open a film. They can only be at so many places at once."
The scarcity of top talent in the coming months may help to bring more location shoots to Los Angeles, according to some industry insiders. Since many of the A-list movie stars live in and around L.A. and, like most other people, prefer to work close to home, they might use their leverage with the studios to shoot movies here rather than in Canada or elsewhere.
As a result, Los Angeles might still see a major boost in activity.
"It's getting really busy right now," said Mike Bobenko, senior vice president of operations with the EIDC. "What's going into production right now needs to be done quickly, and producers will prefer to work with the crews here, which are less of a risk that those in Canada when time is a factor."
Bobenko expects the number of L.A. location shoots in the first part of the year to be 20 percent higher than in the same period last year.
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