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There’s No Place Like Home at California Locations Expo

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“California is the edge. That is the incentive,” said Danny DeVito at the recent California Locations Expo, held this year in The Hollywood Museum, just kitty-corner from where the Oscars annually unfold.

The comment and locale were both instructive about the forces that the event’s sponsor – the California Film Commission (and the various statewide film liaison offices) – were trying to channel.

That museum – now a repository of costumes and props from iconic Hollywood fare, on both large and small screens – was initially the Max Factor building, headquarters for the equally iconic make-up manufacturer, who once had a spokesperson in Lucille Ball, as the company used its “Hollywood cred” to sell make-up to the masses. Now, however, the Max Factor brand is owned by a larger corporation – as are the studios themselves – and is mostly marketed overseas.

California is scrambling to deal with being a victim of its own Hollywood success. After all those TV shows, movies, all that Max Factor make-up so anyone could look like a star, the Golden State is no longer the only place where one can shoot a film, thanks, in part, to innovations coming from California’s Silicon Valley. In fact, when producers look at budgets, and the tax rebates and production incentives offered elsewhere, the Golden State is sometimes “the furthest place,” in terms of budgeting.

In his keynote, DeVito recounted an incident when he was a young dad, waiting for a flight at LAX. Having been squirreled away to a waiting area for the famous and often harassed, he met an Award-winning actor from an earlier generation who remarked how touched he was at seeing DeVito play with his kids. The unnamed actor had recently undergone therapy with his own adult kids, and they totaled up how much of their childhood dad had been away, on film and TV shoots – five years’ worth of childhood.

And that was before incentives were being dangled in front of producers on a daily basis. DeVito teared up recounting the story, and mentioned that the idea of keeping productions in state wasn’t so much to make life better for stars, but for all the crew folk, who simply have to go where the production work is.

A big enough box office name can sometimes force a production to stay put – or can more easily arrange to take family members along – but the frank truth is that most below the liners, given the freelance nature of their professions, have to go where the gig takes them.

DeVito also talked about how many of those gigs his current show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, has provided local crew folk over the 10 seasons it’s been on. DeVito estimated there were upwards of 2,800 jobs provided in that time, along with generation of a million dollars in sales tax, and another six million paid in income tax by those who worked here, (probably for higher wages, in many cases, than their out-of-state counterparts).

Other panels followed the keynote, including one moderated by actress Sharon Lawrence. Among the panelists, producer Bonnie Curtis said that “our investors are addicted to this kind of money,” meaning the rebates and incentives.

Particularly at a certain level of budgeting, there is now the absolute expectation that some of that money is going to come back, even before production begins.

And there is, of course, the larger question of whether all of that “production” can ever all come back. Certainly on the VFX side, it would seem more and more of that work will be done outside of Hollywood proper. Fellow panelist Andrew Given, Columbia VP of physical production, said as much when he talked about visual effects work being so mobile. “They can send the files anywhere in the world,” he said.

But in terms of physical production, he added that “predictability was in L.A.’s favor,” in particular the reliability of crews and facilities.

During the audience Q&A, there seemed to be a search for nuance in solutions – and a recognition that parts of “the biz” may not be coming back after all. What about incentives for partial shoots in California, instead of all or nothing? And when will the cap for indie budget rebates be raised in California – especially now that we’re in relatively “flusher” times than in the budget-barren past?

A bill by two L.A.-area assembly reps has cleared floor votes and committees in both state houses with no discernible opposition, so the auguries in that regard are good. The only hitch? No actual dollar amount has been affixed to it yet, so no one is sure how big that particular pot will be. Everyone on the legislative side likes the concept, but how much are they really willing to spend?

Part of summer will in turn be spent, finding out. California may be “the edge,” but those investors, as Curtis pointed out, need to see tangible dollars in order to commit.

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