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Production plummets in L.A. in 2009

January 14, 2010 |  8:15 am

It may have been a banner year at the box office, but 2009 was a complete dud for local film and TV production.

Overall, on-location filming on the streets of Los Angeles plummeted 19% last year, the steepest year-over-year decline since tracking began in 1993, according to data from FilmL.A. Inc, the nonprofit group that handles film permits for much of the L.A. area.

The production sector, a major employer and key facet of L.A.'s signature entertainment industry, was buffeted on several fronts: by a deep recession, which caused studios to release fewer movies and advertisers to curtail spending on commercials; a protracted contract dispute earlier in the year with the Screen Actors Guild; and the continued outflow of film and TV work from Southern California.

Hardest hit was feature-film production, which had been steadily falling over much of the last decade as L.A. lost jobs to Canada and, increasingly, other states such as New Mexico, Louisiana and Michigan that offer lucrative tax credits and rebates to filmmakers.

California's newly adopted film tax credit program helped to blunt the downturn, with production activity increasing by double digits in the second half of the year. About 50 productions have qualified to receive about $100 million in tax credits since the state program debuted this summer.

Nonetheless, the uptick wasn't enough to keep features from falling 30% for the year overall. Feature films accounted for 4,976 permitted production days (defined as a crew's permission to film a single project at a single location over a 24-hour period), the lowest level since 1993 and less than half what it was a decade ago. [Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the lowest level since 2003.]

Television, the largest sector of the production industry, also had a bad year, with production days falling 17% to 15,933 production days. That dip reflected fewer pilots being shot last year as well as a decline in reality TV programming, which the networks had relied on heavily to fill their schedules the year prior, during the 100-day writers strike that ended in February 2008. On-location filming for TV dramas also fell as networks saved money by shooting more on sound stages rather than on-location, and by NBC's ill-fated decision to move "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno to prime-time TV, thereby making less room on their schedules for scripted programming.

Commercial production also dipped in 2009, with production days falling 12% to 5,292, as advertisers scaled back spending due to the recession. That was the lowest level since 2000, when actors who work in commercials went on strike. In a bright spot, however, commercial activity has picked up in the second half of the year as the economy shows signs of recovering.

-- Richard Verrier