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On Location: stay-at-home productions get city's gratitude

April 28, 2010 |  9:00 am
Award A strange thing happened at City Hall last week. For the first time anyone can recall, the Los Angeles City Council handed out awards to a group of filmmakers for simply shooting in town.

That the city would bestow honors on those who chose to film in their backyard might seem odd for a place that is the epicenter of entertainment, but these are unusual times for local production. Last year, on-location filming posted its steepest ever year-over-year decline on record, thanks largely to heavy competition from more than 40 states vying for the same business by offering generous tax incentives and rebates.

Long accused of ignoring the problem of so-called runaway production, which has cost the L.A. economy thousands of job losses over the last decade, officials at City Hall now seem intent on at least giving the appearance that they're doing something to keep Hollywood close to home.

City Council members took time out last Friday morning to pay tribute to Michael Robin and Greer Shephard, the producing team behind the locally shot TV series "The Closer" and " Nip/Tuck;" Louis D'Esposito, co-president of Marvel Studios and an executive producer of the " Iron Man" films, both of which were filmed in L.A.; and Glenn Gainor, head of physical production at Sony Pictures Entertainment film unit Screen Gems, which has shot several movies in the city.
"We're sunny Southern California, where the industry's roots are," said Councilman Bill Rosendahl. "We want to keep filming here and we want to thank some of the folks that have stayed here and kept it together. It's what our city is all about."

The city has has taken a number of small steps to become more film friendly, such as offering free parking in city-owned lots and installing electrical power hook-ups downtown, and working with permit group FilmL.A. on a media campaign to promote the economic benefits of local production. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also is assembling a high-profile board of film industry representatives to advise the city.

The efforts, along with the recognition by the city, mark an important shift in attitude toward the industry, Gainor said.

"For a long time our own backyard became a hard place to shoot," Gainor said. "People just took the industry for granted, just like they took the aerospace industry for granted. I do see a sea change happening here."

Gainor's Screen Gems has shot several films locally, including the vampire thriller "Priest" and the Cher drama "Burlesque," both of which have been approved for state film tax credits.

The credits, covering up to 25% of qualified production costs, have helped blunt the migration of production, but fall well short of what states such as Michigan and New Mexico offer. The program is capped at $100 million a year and was so popular that funding for the first two years' worth of credits ran out in January (applications for the next fiscal year will be accepted in June). By comparison, New York has proposed allocating $420 million annually for film tax credits, Gainor noted.

"We're still not fully competitive," he acknowledged.

Producer Robin said California's film tax credits helped keep shooting of the TNT series "Rizzoli & Isles," for which he is serving as a consulting producer, in L.A. rather than Boston. He also praised moves the city is making to reduce costs for filmmakers, such as the free parking on city property.

"Some of the little things they are doing might save me $10,000 to $15,000 an episode," he said. "If they can keep finding little ways to help us, it gives us a fighting chance of keeping work here."