The New Hollywood: NOLA Film Industry
By Diana Siegel
It’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and whiskey-soaked French quarter music hall One Eyed Jacks is abuzz with activity. Crowds holding beer bottles and plastic cups sway in varying degrees of intensity to the gravelly blues chords pulsing from the band onstage. The frontman trades his vocals for a twangy guitar solo, and the audience erupts in a chorus of whistles and woos. A voice from the back calls “cut” over a megaphone, and activity abruptly stops. No, this gathering is not an extension of an all-night party, but the result of another attraction bringing big business to the Big Easy: film production.
In 2002, the Louisiana State Legislature passed the Louisiana Motion Picture tax Incentive Act, which offers a 30% tax credit to all Louisiana-based film productions costing over $300,000 dollars, as well as a 5% labor tax credit for the employment of local residents. Since the act went into effect, and especially in the years following Hurricane Katrina, projects large and small have increasingly flocked to the Pelican State to bring their stories to life. In the past four years, New Orleans alone has hosted over 150 film productions—a number that is sure to grow as long as the tax incentive remains in place.
This influx of out-of-state filmmakers has prompted the rapid development of film-related resources in Louisiana. Among them are two film studios working to establish Louisiana as a long-term competitive force in the industry, using two different but equally effective approaches. The first, Second Line Stages, provides a complete range of cutting-edge production services and exceeds current industry standards to attract big-budget film projects to our state. The second, 9th Ward Studios, also provides a full range of production services, but caters to smaller projects with corresponding budgets, encouraging the development of a local creative filmmaking community.
SECOND LINE STAGES
Tucked away in an industrial pocket of the Lower Garden District, the towering modular structure of Second Line Stages presides over weathered brick warehouses and overgrown lots. Originally purchased by Susan Brennan in 1998 for the development of luxury condominiums, the property now houses the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified film studio in the nation.
Plans for Second Line Stages emerged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, whose winds damaged the original property beyond repair. At this time, Brennan was approached by Trey Burvant, a film developer/actor/producer and New Orleans native, to take advantage of the Motion Picture Tax Incentive Act and repurpose the space as a film production studio. The two moved forward with the idea, designing a state-of-the art facility to meet and exceed the needs of large-scale Hollywood productions with the hope of establishing New Orleans as a long- term industry hub. Brennan and Burvant collaborated with local architectural firm John C. Williams, LLC to design the ecologically efficient structure that stands today.
Since opening its largest soundstage in 2010, Second Line Stages has become the go-to louisiana filming locale for big-budget Hollywood films, including the Green Lantern, Django Unchained, Looper, 21 Jump Street, and Spike Lee’s upcoming Old Boy. the space’s popularity among high-status industry professionals is largely due to its three high-quality soundstages, all of which have received an NC (Noise Criterion) 25 rating—the highest purity of sound a space can achieve. The largest stage measures 18,000 square feet, with a 44-foot- high grid for hanging lighting and audio equipment, and is the only soundstage in the state with a catwalk for precise lighting and audio configuration.
All services at Second Line comply with LEED standards. The entire building was built with sustainable, repurposed materials, and all of its rooms, including the soundstages, are heated, cooled, and lit with biodiesel fuel. Any water used is filtered and recycled, food waste is composted, and paper supplies are both manufactured from recycled material, and recycled after use. Employees are encouraged to ride their bicycles to work, and use the in-house showers on sweaty days. Though the cost of building a sustainable structure was far from inexpensive, Brennan has faith that the eventual savings in energy output will outweigh the price of the initial investment. Finances aside, Brennan and Burvant believe that “it is a responsibility of developers to build green” with the knowledge we have about our impact on the environment.
Brennan’s conscientiousness is reflected in her view of the film industry’s widespread economic impact in Louisiana. “It’s amazing, the amount of people the film industry touches,” she states, citing not only young local crewmembers who gain “a tremendous amount of experience very quickly,” but also catering companies hired to feed cast and crew, location managers paid for use of their space, set materials gleaned from lumber yards, hotels booked to house visiting production staff, and restaurants, music halls, and nightlife hotspots that benefit from the influx of industry visitors. In keeping with its community awareness, second line works closely with other local film-related businesses, including casting agencies and post-production houses, to offer clients a full range of production needs.
While second line certainly deserves praise for its progressive architecture and community awareness, all of its services ultimately work to achieve one primary goal: “We are here to serve our customers,” Brennan states, “to give them as good a service as possible.” It is that mentality, above all else, that keeps Second Line Stages in action. Through its dedication to offering visiting productions top-of-the-line services with a healthy dose of New Orleans hospitality and ecological conscientiousness, second line stages hopes to continue to attract large-scale projects to our state and stimulate the growth of both a self-sustaining film industry and the economy at large.
9TH WARD STUDIOS
Across town in the 9th Ward’s St. Claude District, 9th Ward Studios rests modestly amid shotgun cottages in varying degrees of post-Katrina repair. Large, white-sided, and adorned only by a small orange sign hanging over a barely visible door, the studios’ unassuming exterior belies a rich and vibrant history.
Originally opened in 1964 under the moniker independent studios, the space and proprietor Joe Catalanotto hosted a wide array of big-name clients over the course of a 40-year lifespan. Independent studios doubled as a recording space for musicians, including B.B. King, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and AC/DC, and served as soundstage for film and television projects including easy Rider, live and let Die, and Pretty Baby.
As one might suspect, activity ceased in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The studio incurred extensive damage; it was flooded with four feet of standing water during the storm, and looted in the days that followed. Catalanotto had no choice but to gut the space and put it on the market.
Current owner Burwell Jordan purchased the building from Catalanotto in 2008 without any concrete plans for its development. A few months later, local filmmakers Jason Buch and Jason Waggenspack approached Jordan to shoot in the then-empty space. According to Jordan, who had been friendly with Catalanotto, watching the young filmmakers transform the building’s interior into a soundstage “inspired a sense of duty to bring the space back” to its original purpose. Jordan proposed the idea of permanently reconverting the space into a film studio, Buch and Waggenspack signed on as co-owners, and 9th Ward Studios was born, officially reopening its stage doors in 2009.
9th Ward Studios caters to a diverse spectrum of projects, but its ultimate mission is, as Buch states, “to provide a functional studio for independent productions in Louisiana.” As independent filmmakers themselves, both Buch and Waggenspack emphasize the important role that “homegrown creative talent” plays in planting firm roots for the film industry in Louisiana. Without a local community of screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, actors, and crewmembers to support it, the film industry has no long-term ties to the state. Conversely, visiting productions are more likely to continue to bring their productions to our state if they can confidently staff their crews from a rich pool of local talent. And if these visiting productions continue to hire Louisiana-based talent, the state will attract aspiring filmmakers from other parts of the country, thus solidifying its status as a viable hub for the film industry. By providing facilities and resources that cater to smaller, independent productions, 9th Ward Studios is fostering the growth of an influential local filmmaking community.
Though the projects it hosts may have smaller-than-blockbuster budgets, 9th Ward Studios offers a full range of high- quality production services, including a 10,000-square-foot soundstage, a 15 x 48-foot green screen, a lighting grid and house lighting setup, noise-canceling walls, and dressing room, green room, and laundry facilities. Notable productions that have used the space include Beasts of the Southern Wild, the upcoming Power of Few starring Christopher Walken, and re-shoots for the action-comedy Red, starring Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and John Malkovich. In keeping with its mission statement, 9th Ward Studios has accommodated several local independent feature and short film productions, and frequently offers its space to film students from UNO and other local schools, both to support the development of young talent and to form working relationships with the city’s future filmmaking community. Additionally, the studio has been used to film documentary commentary, local commercials, and a wide range of music videos.
Whatever the project, 9th Ward Studios provides an important service for both independent filmmakers and the industry at large. By offering professional studio services and facilities to smaller-scale film productions, the studio gives local creative talents the opportunity to turn their ideas into a reality—an offering that fosters the growth of a productive, creative local film community to serve as the foundation of the blossoming louisiana film industry.
A COMMON GOAL
Both Second Line Stages and 9th Ward Studios play important roles in defining Louisiana’s place in the american film industry. the former uses a top- down approach, offering services and facilities that exceed national industry standards to bring big-name projects to louisiana—projects that stimulate the local economy by employing a wide range of local services. the latter works from the bottom up, providing comprehensive yet affordable production services to filmmakers with fewer resources, who both push the creative boundaries of mainstream films and make up the local creative force employed by larger productions.
Provided louisiana continues to offer tax incentives to film-related endeavors, the two approaches demonstrated by each studio combine to form a cycle of supply and demand that forms the underlying structure of the louisiana film industry. if we want this industry to grow into a long- term source of revenue for the state, we must work to sustain the influx of studio- funded films to the state, and support the growth and development of our own local talent.