by MICAH HALEY on NOVEMBER 11, 2010
New Orleans was a natural fit. An old city with a history of hosting films, it was an internationally recognized brand with direct flights to Los Angeles. That, and the Crescent City had a reputation as a damn fine place to party.
New Orleans has always been the film industry’s first love in Louisiana, but a natural disaster in 2005 forced films like The Guardian and Factory Girl north. No stranger to studio films, Baton Rouge was considered, but ultimately deemed too close to ground zero, and films evacuated as far north as possible. As a result, Shreveport’s star grew bright.
“Baton Rouge had seen its share of big pictures,” says Chris Stelly, the State of Louisiana’s director of film & television. “It started with Dukes of Hazzard. That was a really, really big production. Then on the heels of that came The Reaping, which shot here during Katrina [and] they were able to continue to finish that production.”
But in the wake of Katrina, Baton Rouge’s reputation became that of an independent film hub. With the exception of a few small but prolific production companies, the majority of film activity flocked to Shreveport and, over time, returned to New Orleans. Many of the films that did base in the capitol city were interested in locations on its periphery, such as Nottoway Plantation or Angola. But now Baton Rouge has something more: Raleigh Studios at the Celtic Media Centre. With seven stages currently operational and another slated for construction, it is Louisiana’s largest built-for-production film stage facility. And largely because of it, Baton Rouge is back.
The unusually fast ascent from small indies to tentpoles parallels the quick rise of Battleship star Alexander Skarsgård. A year after Katrina, the thirty-three year old actor was a virtual unknown until appearing in Treme creator David Simon’s seven-episode war opus Generation Kill on HBO. With South Louisiana’s recovery well underway, Skarsgård joined the cast of True Blood, HBO’s salacious take on vampire mythology. With True Blood heading into its fourth season, Skarsgård is well known to many as the pale-faced, pink-lipped Eric Northman. A vampire sheriff who runs a bar in Shreveport, Northman is better known by the ladies for his sexual stoicism than his ability to pour Turbodog from a tap. Aboard Battleship, Skarsgård plays Stone Hopper, the older brother to Taylor Kitsch’s Alex Hopper. The military setting is a natural one for the Swedish-born actor, a veteran who worked as an anti-terrorism marine in the country of his birth. With Battleship, Skarsgård and co-star Taylor Kitsch are poised to be the newest members of Hollywood’s A-list of leading men.
In addition to direct economic impact, titanic-sized projects bring with them a high profile that grows Louisiana’s international brand as a filming destination. As the world follows Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner’s every move, they will be on the streets of Baton Rouge. But they are certainly not the only projects in town. As big productions roll in, they join an unusual number of independent films produced through Baton Rouge-based production companies including Films in Motion, K2 Pictures and Unlimited Production Services, all of which are producing larger, more high profile films than just a few years ago. “It’s really is amazing to see how far people have come and how fast their companies have grown,” says Stelly. “A small startup company with a good, tight business plan can grow like that. And then they become fully self-sufficient, efficient machines.”
The result is an impressive groundswell of volume in filming. “We’ve made nine movies this year already. Nine movies and we’ve got four more to make, which is just mind-boggling,” says producer Greg Walker of Unlimited Production Services. “We literally have twenty movies to deliver in the next two years, it’s crazy.” The lion share of Unlimited’s output is part of deals with After Dark Films and Silver Pictures, including Horrorfest flicks Seconds Apart and 51 and the first of five After Dark Originals, Transit, starring Jim Caviezel, Elizabeth Rohm, James Frain, Harold Perrineau and Diora Baird.
The sustained expansion is creating demand for local labor, and Baton Rouge’s previously anemic crew base is quickly expanding. “Our last local crew was over 50% [from Baton Rouge] which was great. Two years ago it was 30%. We had 63% on one movie this year,” says Walker. “And we’re getting new, quality people here. People are moving here and staying here. The quality of the local crew has really gone up.” A testament to the local crew base, Unlimited will be shooting three films simultaneously in Baton Rouge this November.
The biggest lesson to locals and onlookers alike is this: there’s no limit to Louisiana’s potential for growth. The surge of activity in Baton Rouge has only improved the reputations of New Orleans, Shreveport and Lafayette, who are all experiencing a sustained increase in filming and post-production. With four viable film hubs, Louisiana has a distinct advantage over other incentive states.
“It’s wild, it’s crazy, it’s unbelievable,” says Stelly enthusiastically. “In 2010, the films that have wrapped this year will have exceeded the first five years of the program combined, from 2002-2006. The total films we are doing in 2010 will meet or exceed that number. We’re at over 120 applications to the program. You’ve got Disney back down in New Orleans with The Lucky One. You’ve got the stuff happening in Baton Rouge with Twilight and with Battleship. A lot is happening.”
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