By WADE DANIELS
After a decade of dramatic gains in the entertainment industry, the number of movie production jobs dipped slightly in the first five months of the year which industry observers attribute to a reduction in the number of blockbuster films.
In Los Angeles County, 127,100 people were employed in movie production during the first five months of 1998 900 fewer than for the same period in 1997, according to the state Economic Development Department.
Although relatively small, the decrease is significant considering that motion picture employment has grown every year since 1992.
For the first five months of 1997, for example, employment was up 18,000 over the same period in 1996.
“The reality is that we’ve seen exponential growth in the industry most of this decade, and it’s just impossible to keep up that pace,” said Melissa Patack, vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America California Group. “The amount of production is still going to increase, but maybe not at the same rate.”
Indeed, the number of permits issued for a day of feature film location shooting through May dropped by more than 250 to 4,753 compared to the first five months of 1997, according to the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., which issues the permits on behalf of Los Angeles city and county governments.
In reaction to mounting production costs and big-budget flops, studios are cutting the number of blockbuster films in production, focusing instead on producing “mid-sized” movies that require smaller production staffs.
“This means there are about 30 fewer films a year in the pipeline,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County. “Until last fall, employment had been heading upward. Since then it’s been mostly sideways.”
As an example, Burbank-based Walt Disney Co. is producing 24 movies this year compared to 35 in 1995. In May, Warner Bros. Chairman and Chief Executive Terry Semel announced plans to produce 20 to 25 films a year starting in 1999, as opposed to the usual 25 to 30. The studio has suffered a string of high-cost duds since early 1997 including “Mad City,” “Sphere” and “The Postman.”
With the exception of 1992, when the recession caused a slowdown in production growth in Hollywood, 1998 is the first time in a decade there has been any drop in production employment. The average number of movie jobs in Los Angeles County grew by about 75 percent between 1990 and 1997, according to the state EDD.
Lawrence Haberman, editor of the Van Nuys-based Entertainment Employment Journal, said that in addition to the number of films being scaled back, studios are focusing on making fewer special-effects-heavy movies that require large budgets and large numbers of people to produce. For example, he said there is a substantial number of teen horror films in the pipeline.
“A lot of (the studios) figure that they can make a “Scream” for $25 million rather than another $100 million special-effects film that could be another flop,” Haberman said.
Haberman also noted that smaller “independent” film companies have been affected by economic problems in Asia. For example, West Hollywood-based Spectacor Films, whose films are released direct to video in the U.S. but are shown in Asian theaters, has put off making at least two films until the fall. Company executives hope that the economies in Asia will be on an upswing later this year and that better distribution deals for their films can be had.