By Mike Scott
That the Louisiana film industry will set a record for local production in 2011 shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who’s been paying attention over the past decade. But as state officials put the finishing touches on the books for the year, it appears to have passed a noteworthy milestone: In 2011, the state film industry became a billion-dollar player.
Ever since the Legislature passed filmmaking tax incentives in 2002 — and, in the process, transformed Louisiana into a major Hollywood player — the industry has, in true Brees-ian fashion, rewritten the record books almost every year.
Although the pace of that growth has slowed over the past two years, unofficial figures supplied by Louisiana Entertainment, the state’s film office, show that more than 150 applications for participation in the state’s film incentive program were filed for the 2011 calendar year. Of the combined $1.9 billion budget of those 150 productions, an estimated $1.3 billion was spent in-state.
What dollar value translates into for the state-issued tax credits — in other words, what the 2011 incentives cost Louisiana taxpayers — is still unclear as numbers are being finalized. In any case, it expands on a record-breaking 2010 that saw 141 productions — with a combined budget of $1.4 billion — spend an estimated $898 million in-state.
“It’s good to be busy,” said Chris Stelly, executive director of Louisiana Entertainment. “You’re starting to see not only major studios but mini-majors as well that have had such a great time and a great experience come back. I think that sort of repeat business says a lot.”
If the number of productions preparing to set up in New Orleans in the first quarter of the year is any indication, 2012′s film and TV activity could rival even the 2011 figures.
Major studio Warner Bros. — which has shot such films as last year’s “Green Lantern” and 2010′s “Jonah Hex” in town, and which partnered with Paramount Pictures for 2008′s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” — is one of those repeat customers. It’s already back, continuing through Valentine’s Day on the Jay Roach-directed feature film “Dog Fight,” a comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as warring Southern political candidates. (Other notable cast members include Dan Aykroyd, John Lithgow and Jason Sudeikis.)
Meanwhile, finishing touches are being put on the 20th Century Fox-backed political drama “Broken City,” starring Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Just as that production decamps, mini-major Summit Entertainment will come in, bringing the comic heist film “Now You See Me” to town. That project, set to shoot Jan. 16 through March, will star the likes of Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine.
Then comes Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” a so-called spaghetti Southern starring Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Samuel L. Jackson for the Weinstein Co. The project, initially scheduled to start this month, has been delayed until February but is reportedly still on track to shoot locally.
Like Warner Bros., all three of those studios — Fox, Summit and Weinstein — have also shot multiple movies in town since 2002.
And that’s just the high-profile tip of the iceberg. Other noteworthy productions on tap for the first quarter of 2012 include:
•”The Host,” a supernatural drama starring Saoirse Ronan and based on the book by “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer. It is set to shoot Feb. 13 to April 20 in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
•”Ender’s Game,” another Summit-backed project and potential film franchise based on the first book in the young-reader sci-fi series by Orson Scott Card. Starring Asa Butterfield, Haliee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley and Harrison Ford, it is set to shoot Feb. 24 to June 8 in New Orleans.
•Universal Pictures’ as-yet untitled Tom Cruise sci-fi action film (it’s been referred to as “Horizons” and “Oblivion”). It will shoot from March 12 to Aug. 12 in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
•Production continues on the third season of the locally set HBO drama series “Treme,” which started in October and continues through May 17.
•The USA Network buddy-cop series “Common Law” started shooting in October and continues through February.
A raft of smaller, indie productions should fill in the cracks throughout the first half of the year — at which point a fresh batch of major productions likely will have been announced. What all that means is that Louisiana’s newest major industry looks like it’s here to stay for a while, Stelly said.
That record-breaking pace of production also means 2012 could see another record broken, as an unprecedented number of major local productions opens in theaters. Universal’s locally shot “Contraband,” starring Wahlberg and Kate Beckinsale, opens Jan. 13, and releases with local ties are expected to continue steadily throughout the year as at least a dozen studio-backed projects, and perhaps a dozen more noteworthy independent productions, are set to unspool in 2012.
In fact, looking ahead, Stelly predicts the number of locally shot releases hitting theaters in 2012 will be the big story this time next year.
“I think we’re going to be talking about the resounding box-office success of Louisiana motion pictures,” he said, “shows like ‘Contraband,’ the second (Louisiana-shot) ‘Twilight,’ ‘G.I. Joe 2,’ ‘Looper.’ ‘Battleship’ is certainly showing promise. So I think it’s going to be a good year on that front.
“I think we’re also going to be talking about an industry showing signs of being a consistent mainstay in our economy.”