It's been a wild ride for jobs in the local entertainment industry.

The first half of 2005 saw the largest surge in four years in L.A. County's information sector employment 24,000 additional jobs, mostly in motion picture and television, according to the quarterly UCLA Anderson Forecast released last week. The forecast attributed much of the state's payroll job growth during that period to new film industry jobs.

Then, just as quickly, 17,000 of those extra jobs vanished, causing the statewide employment market to stall out in September and October.

The reason for the spike? Mostly, it's from a record-high surge in TV pilots that production houses pitch to network and cable channels in the hopes of getting picked up.

"We had an extraordinarily busy pilot season this year," said Steve MacDonald, president of the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., the non-profit entity that issues film shoot permits throughout L.A. County.

The jump in pilot production began last December and continued through April, coinciding with the biggest employment increases in the industry, MacDonald said. Then, shortly after the pilots were finished, thousands of people found themselves out of work.

Of course, the pilot process long has been a part of the industry. Every spring there is a spike in employment when pilots for dramas, sitcoms and reality shows are readied for network and cable executives as they consider their new lineups. But the work is very transitory, with only 10 percent of pilots typically getting picked up.

The difference these days is the increased presence of first-run programming on cable and with it, the additional opportunities that a series can be picked up.

"Every cable channel has to distinguish itself in some way, and many do this through original programming. This leads to more work on the production end," said Hudson Hickman, a former vice president of post production of MGM Worldwide Television Group, a unit of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., who is now an independent producer.

With so much cable competition, the premium channels are spending as much and in some cases more than the networks. "Many of the cable channels are now paying for high-end shows," said Jim Sharp, senior vice president of television production at 20th Century Fox Television, a unit of News Corp.

Cable taking off
As the number of cable outlets grew in the 1990s, so did television production days, according to the EIDC. After reaching a peak of 11,713 in 1997, production days then leveled off for the next four years before resuming their climb in 2002.

In 2004, the pace accelerated to a record 18,257 production days. The totals this year are on track to match or surpass that figure, with 16,146 production days in the first 10 months.

EIDC figures also show a jump in feature film production days in late 2004 and early 2005, compared with similar periods in each of the last four years.

"With cable, this whole TV thing has really taken off in the last two or three years," said Ryan Ratcliff, the economist with the UCLA Anderson Forecast who documented the surge in information sector employment.

Another factor behind the increasing number of pilots has been the networks' willingness to jettison a series that fails to quickly capture an audience. "Unless you have an instant hit, there's no sticking with a show on television," said Sharp. "That means networks are always on the lookout for ideas to replace shows that are pulled."

MacDonald doesn't expect to see employment spikes of the same magnitude in coming years. "The long-term trend with cable television stations staggering their seasons is for a flattening out of these spikes as pilot shows are produced year-round," he said.

A recent report by the L.A. County Economic Development Corp. found that continued patterns of runaway production to other state and countries, coupled with a decline in DVD sales, could result in a drop-off in entertainment industry employment. The situation is especially unclear on the movie front, given a weak box office in 2005 and increasing pressure to cut costs by the corporate owners of Hollywood studios.

Half of the 81 feature films being made in October were shot in other states and 26 were being made out of the country. Next year, California lawmakers are expected to revive legislation that would offer tax breaks to keep film productions in the state after efforts last summer stalled in the Legislature.

"Even a 1 percent drop in film production can have a dramatic effect on the state," Amy Lemisch, executive director of the California Film Commission, told Bloomberg News.

Another question mark is labor unrest. Both the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America recently elected new leaders who have vowed to be more aggressive in upcoming negotiations with the networks and studios.

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