|Without union designation, Baton Rouge is more expensive than New Orleans for movie production|
Raleigh Studios Baton Rouge has 150,000 square feet of design-built stage space at the Celtic Media Centre, in the capital city of a state with one of the most generous film incentive programs in North America. But no one's shooting there right now.
Meanwhile, film productions practically saturate New Orleans, even though they often end up working in old converted warehouses. What gives?
Raleigh's director of studio operations, Patrick Mulhearn, says a big reason is that Baton Rouge, unlike Shreveport and New Orleans, is not considered by the industry to be a “production center.” It's a bit of an inside-baseball issue, but the bottom line is this: Shooting in Baton Rouge is more expensive than in New Orleans. The current three-year labor deal is up, but the odds for change may be slimbecause the union likes things the way they are.
“There are about 30 different companies that are out here on the lot,” Mulhearn says. “When it's slow, we all suffer. A rising tide floats all boats; right now the tide is low because there's really not much going on in Baton Rouge.”
Every three years, the IATSE, part of the AFL-CIO, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers hammer out a new “area standards agreement.” Along with pay rates, benefits and the like, they consider which cities might be designated as production centers; there are 36 nationwide.
The negotiations are secret, but the word is that during the current round, only one new production center was proposed by the AMPTP: Baton Rouge. However, IATSE Local 478, which covers all of Louisiana and part of Mississippi, is opposed. [AMPTP declined a request for comment.]
The local is dominated by New Orleans residents who would like to keep as much work as close to home as possible. And when they do work in Baton Rouge, they're paid mandatory stipends for housing and even sometimes for “idle days” when they don't have to work, Mulhearn says. The Baton Rouge union member who goes to work in New Orleans doesn't get those same guarantees.
“If that doesn't sound fair, that's because it isn't,” he says.
Baton Rouge's 108 union members, by Mulhearn's count, outnumber those in at least a few production centers around the country, but they're still a pretty small slice of the local's 1,200 or so total. The union says there just aren't enough members here to justify a change.
“There's not enough crew living in Baton Rouge to staff the jobs in Baton Rouge,” says Phil LoCicero, Local 478's president and one of 13 international vice presidents with IATSE. “If Baton Rouge is busy, they have to pull people from New Orleans.” And if Baton Rouge is a production center, those people will have to pay for their own housing; even now the stipend may not cover the cost of a hotel room, he says.
It seems like a classic chicken/egg conundrum, if you assume that if Baton Rouge was a production center, more union members would want to live here. But LoCicero says that's not necessarily the case.
“We actually tell people, if you want to get ahead in the game and get a better chance to work, you should move to Baton Rouge,” he says. But most members simply prefer to live in New Orleans.
BUILDING MOVIES, NOT ROCKETS
Patrick Mulhearn, director of studio operations at Raleigh Studios Baton Rouge, says there's not a single place in Louisiana, or even the Gulf South, that can come close to matching the 150,000 total square feet of state space that he can offer. Except one: NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility. More...
Every film is different, but as a rough example, Mulhearn says 80 New Orleans crew members on a Baton Rouge job might cost an extra $400 a week per worker, or $32,000 per week. Multiplied by a 10-week shoot, and that's an extra $320,000.
For a big-budget production, the difference barely registers. Of the five largest Louisiana productions, Mulhearn says, three were based in Baton Rouge: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Battleship, and the forthcoming Oblivion starring Tom Cruise.
But for a picture with a budget of $20 million or $40 million, the extra expenses can start to add up. And while $130 million tent pole productions are great, midlevel films are the stuff of a consistent, sustainable movie business. The only film Mulhearn can name operating in Baton Rouge right now is a $5 million flick called Whiskey Bay, starring Willem Dafoe and Matt Dillon.
“You have to make Baton Rouge a production center,” says TV and film producer Mark McNair, whose credits include True Blood and Meet the Spartans. “It costs too much money to go there otherwise.”
McNair and Mulhearn say workers who primarily live in Baton Rouge sometimes maintain New Orleans addresses to claim the stipend. While some shows need a New Orleans setting, most don't, and McNair guesses that at least 30% of those productions would be in Baton Rouge if the playing field was level.
Close to 80% or so of all Louisiana productions are based in New Orleans. There are better facilities there now than a few years ago—McNair mentions Second Line Stages, which has 37,000 square feet of total soundstage space—but nothing that can match the size and scope of Celtic, he says.
The current area standards agreement, which would have expired July 31, has been extended. The parties were expected to return to the negotiating table Aug. 20. Once a deal is done, Baton Rouge's window of opportunity will close until 2015.
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