Falling Dollar Could Spell End To Loss of Film Production Jobs

By DARRELL SATZMAN
Staff Reporter

Los Angeles lost more entertainment industry jobs in 2003 as a healthy jump in television production was offset by a decline in filmmaking.

Through November, location shooting on feature films was down 11 percent from the like period last year, putting the region on pace for its seventh consecutive year of diminishing moviemaking, according to the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., which issues film permits in the county.

The losses counteracted big increases in local television work, fed by a rise in original programming for cable networks. The 13,508 television shooting days through November marked a 12 percent increase from the year-ago period. (A shooting day is a permit issued for a particular project on a specific date.)

As a result, overall production activity in Los Angeles through November was a wash compared with last year, but holding even was not enough to stem further erosion of the local production workforce.

The industry, which peaked at 146,000 jobs in 1996, has dwindled to 113,200 this year, according to the L.A. County Economic Development Corp. There were 121,000 production workers in L.A. in 2002.

EIDC Vice President Kathleen Milnes said television work would continue to drive the local production community in 2004.

"We're expecting another busy pilot season and we certainly think television will hold, if not get stronger," Milnes said. "Features were down and, as usual, we think that's because of the incentives by other low-cost regions and governments that are providing substantial financial incentives."

Of late, only about a third of the major studio features are being filmed in Los Angeles, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for LAEDC.

"The industry is very focused on cost and it's expensive to film in California," Kyser said. "We expect feature filming to continue to be weak, although a lot of the post-production work will continue to be done here."

Tempered optimism

Christopher Ursitti, co-owner of Los Angeles Center Studios, a six-studio complex downtown, said business in 2003 was spotty but he believed that relief may be in the sight as the dollar sinks to its lowest value against the Canadian dollar in a decade.

Hallmark Entertainment just wrapped shooting on a movie of the week at Los Angeles Center Studios. With its thin production margins, this type of project is most commonly cited as leaving for Canada.

"It's all about the dollars," Ursitti said. "I'm hearing from producers that it's not as attractive as it used to be (to go to Canada). If producers can't save the dollars they'd rather stay home with their families."

Ursitti said early indications are that 2004 will be more steady, although the dearth of features continues to be a big concern because those projects have the highest budgets and crews tend to be paid a bit more than for work on television and music videos.

Still, Milnes argued that television work was every bit as important as films.

"If you take an average series, with 18 to 26 episodes, that has a significantly bigger impact on employment and expenditures than a feature that shoots for two or three months," she said.

Through November, commercial production was down 1.4 percent from the like period last year, a bad year compared to the high levels of the late 1990s.

The ad market has shown signs of reviving, leading to optimistic forecasts for national advertising growth in 2004. But Steve Caplan, senior vice president of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, said it was unclear what impacts that would have locally.

"Most of the increase is tied to event-driven activities, like the election and the Olympics," he said. "Whether that translates into increased production in Los Angeles remains to be seen."

Still, Caplan said the mood in the commercial industry was cautiously optimistic.

"The two main things for Los Angeles is that it needs to be competitive in the global marketplace," Caplan said. "And we have to get through some of the issues facing us at the local level. It's really significant if L.A. is going to enjoy a recovery in commercial production."

Kaplan was referring to active opposition in some neighborhoods to what residents, and some Los Angeles City Council members, say are noise and other disruptions and boorish behavior on the part of film crews.

Milnes said the EIDC has developed new procedures for tracking complaints and was making efforts to work more cooperatively with neighborhood groups.

"We continue to deal with it block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood," she said. "If the complaints ever went away it would make us nervous. It would mean that there was no filming going on."

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