Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Short guide to Hollywood South

When asked what and where Hollywood is, the most probable answer would be Los Angeles, where film production takes place. This was certainly true during the early twentieth century when film production migrated from New York to California in search of affordable real estate, cheap labour and natural sunlight. With time, the Hollywood studio system became synonymous with its geographical location in and around LA. However, with the breakdown of the studio system in the late 1950s, Hollywood disaggregated and films were made across a large number of geographical locations (McDonald & Wasko 297-298). Whilst a good deal of film production still takes place in Hollywood’s estimated 400 sound stages and 4.4 million square feet of back lots, stretching from Glendale in south LA to Burbank in the north, increasingly films produced by Hollywood are shot in locations hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Such films, made by Hollywood production companies but filmed elsewhere, are referred to as runaway productions. This is a long-standing practice, taking advantage of unique locations and cost-cutting opportunities outside the US, with Canada, the UK and Eastern Europe popular destinations. With Hollywood outsourcing production, many US states have followed the lead of these countries and enacted financial incentives to entice film studios and production companies. The most successful of these states has been Louisiana, now ranked as the third largest production centre in the US behind California and New York. Prior to 2002 Louisiana grossed around $20m from film production. It now grosses over $2bn annually with over 600 films being shot there. This boom in high-end film production has given the state of Louisiana the title ‘Hollywood South’ (O’Donoghue).

Two things drive runaway productions: first, artistic reasons for shooting on location due to script requirements; and second, the economic pull of tax incentives and lower labour costs. Runaway films are not a new phenomenon, in the 1990s American film production began to migrate to countries such as the UK, Luxembourg and Australia, which offered economic incentives. Canada in particular offered a favourable exchange rate, lower labour costs and tax breaks that reduced production costs by some 25 per cent. As a result, by 2001, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal became major production centres, causing thousands of jobs to be lost in Hollywood (Balio 37-38). Indeed, it is estimated that in 1998 the US economy lost $10bn as a result of runaway productions (Kuhn & Westwell 355- 356). In an attempt to combat these losses and garner more revenue for local economies in the US, many states have offered incentives through film commissions as a way of enticing film and television production companies to shoot there. 44 out of the 50 states of the US offer some form of economic incentive but the state of Louisiana has by far the most generous.

Most local and state governments in the US have film commissions dating back to the early 1950s, which were created to help support film productions looking to shoot in the local area. Film commissions often provide production coordinators, location supervisors and general trouble-shooters. Following the increase in the number of runaway productions during the 1990s, local film commissions began to appreciate not just the economic benefits of direct spending by film production companies but also a ‘multiplier effect’ whereby “the local economy can take in as much as three times the amount that a production company actually spends on location” (Wasko, 39). In 1991 the Louisiana film commission was the first state to offer tax incentives in addition to the usual support services. There were extended in 2002 when the Louisiana Legislature enacted the Louisiana Motion Picture Tax Incentive Act. The act made available to national and international productions a 30 per cent tax credit on any production spend over $300,000 in the state. In order to encourage the use of local labour, an additional five per cent tax credit on payroll expenditures to Louisiana residents was offered. With no annual cap, tax credits may also be sold back to the state for 85 per cent of their face value, or brokered on the open market. Eligibility for these benefits rests on the production company being headquartered in Louisiana and using goods sourced from within the state.

The legislation has had a positive impact on the local economy. In 2012 the state made $1.8bn from film and TV production, with over $700m being earned by state citizens (Chawla). The increase in film production also led to the development of a wider infrastructure, with a large number of sound stages, production houses and post-production centres constructed in cities such as Shreveport, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, thus further encouraging films to shoot in the area. Over 15,000 skilled industry jobs have been created since 2002, an increase of over 400 per cent. Due to the nature of digital cinematography, post-production such as editing, colour grading and computer-generated imagery is much easier to complete close to the shooting location. This has seen cities like New Orleans grow as post-production centres, allowing Louisiana to become a self-contained production hub (Kushner).

Critics of the tax incentives in Louisiana have commented on the $200m the state reimburses annually to film production companies. In times of economic austerity many feel the money could be put to better use. Louisiana state representative, Ted James has called for a ten per cent reduction of the tax break. It is argued the legislation passed in 2002 was designed to be a short-term incentive to establish a film industry in the state, something which has arguably run its course. However, supporters of the tax credit system contend that the state spend pays dividends with the trickle down economic effect on local business, labour and real estate outweighing costs. If cutbacks were made, it is feared film production would move to one of the neighbouring states such as Georgia, which offers a similar tax credit system (Chawla). In 2008 Georgia began to offer a competitive 30 per cent transferable tax credit system. Although not quite as lucrative as Louisiana due to the legislation being based on the creditworthiness of the production, and therefore not supporting smaller independent productions, Georgia is seen as the direct rival to Louisiana as Hollywood South.

Louisiana is no stranger to filmmaking, with films such as City Hall and Down in Dixie being shot as far back as 1898. Later films such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Easy Rider (1969) and Southern Comfort (1981) all made use of the unique landscape and cultural associations of Louisiana as a film location. New Orleans is particularly popular as narrative backdrop. Contemporary films such as RED (2010), Justice (2011) and Oldboy (2013) use the city as a recognisable location, evoking the Southern Gothic characteristics of the city as a place of decadence and intrigue. The familiar colonial architecture of New Orleans’ French Quarter has served as the setting for films such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and Django Unchained (2012). It is arguably New Orleans diverse bohemian culture containing a mix of African Creole, French Cajun and Spanish Isleno peoples, and its rich musical heritage of Dixieland jazz and vivacious Mardi Gras carnivals that make it distinctive and thus alluring to filmmakers. It may also account for celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Johnny Depp and Nicolas Cage buying houses in the area.

However, the façade of a fun-loving tourist haven was disrupted in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina decimated the southeast coast of Louisiana. Over 1,800 people died as a result of the hurricane and the city of New Orleans was flooded for weeks afterwards (Knabb et al 1-2). Social and racial divisions in the city were highlighted (with poor people suffering disproportionately) and the federal government were slow to offer assistance. Interestingly a number of film and TV productions have chosen to include elements or effects of the disaster within their narratives. Déjà Vu (2006) began its principal photography in New Orleans before Katrina hit, and included scenes of devastation within the film. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) directly references Hurricane Katrina in its narrative, as a trigger for the main character Daisy to begin recounting her life story. The HBO television series Treme (2010- ) depicts life post Katrina, and focuses on how the residents of New Orleans attempt to rebuild after the disaster. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), one of the most successful independent films recently shot in Louisiana, does not directly refer to Katrina but tells the story of a storm-ravaged bayou population who destroy a levee in order to protect their community. Be that as it may, the destructive force of Katrina was not enough to deter filmmakers, and the continued input of cash from the industry has aided economic recovery in the region.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions surrounding Louisiana as Hollywood South is its sustainability as major production centre. Many feel that if and when the tax credit system is reduced film production will simply move to the next most financially receptive location. Historically, a large number of middle-class Los Angelenos have earned a living doing below-the-line work in film and television in jobs such as makeup artists, camera assistants and sound recording. As most of these jobs are put out to independent contractors, many have moved away from Los Angeles to places like Louisiana. This continued runaway production is resulting in Los Angeles’ cultural and economic ties to the film industry being severed. Attempts by California to try to economically re-entice film production have been slow and although Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has recognised runaway productions as an important issue to tackle, legislation comparable to Louisiana’s is a long way off (Pomerantz). In the world of contemporary American cinema it appears that Hollywood is not so much a geographical location, responsible for the majority of US film and TV production, but rather a term referring to an ever-shifting location dictated by economic benefits. As producer Ram Bergman said in a recent interview in Forbes magazine, “Movie people are nomads. We go where the best deal is” and as a result the name Hollywood South may run in parallel with its better known counterpart for the foreseeable future.


Balio, Tino. Hollywood in the New Millennium. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

Chawla, Kiran, “Lights! Camera! Taxes!” WAFB, 7 May 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

Kushner, Adam B., “Forget Hollywood. Filmmakers Are Flocking to New Orleans” The Atlantic Cities, 11 Apr. 2013. Web. 3 Mar.2014.

Knabb, Richard D., Rhome, Jamie R., Brown, Daniel P., “Tropical Cyclone Report, Hurricane Katrina, 23-30 August 2005” National Hurricane Centre, 14 Sept. 2011. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

Kuhn, Annette & Westwell, Guy. Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

O’Donoghue, Julia, “Louisiana’s Tax Credits for the Film Industry Reviewed.” The Times-Picayune, 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.

Pomerantz, Dorothy, “Cameras Rolling Away From California: State Falls To Fourth In Film Production” Forbes Magazine, 6 Mar. 2014. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

Wasko, Janet. How Hollywood Works. Rhayader: Sage, 2011. Print.

Written by Benjamin Skyrme, 2014; Queen Mary, University of London.

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Copyright © 2014 Benjamin David Skyrme/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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