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AFCI 2013: Hollywood moans

Ahead of this week’s annual Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI) Locations Show in Los Angeles, the city’s film commission complains (again) about the amount of production not happening in Hollywood.

The annual Locations show draws film commissions/film offices from many countries around the world, to tout their wares and attempt to attract inbound production to the country, territory, state or city they represent. Film NZ has maintained a presence at the event for several years.

In a way, it’s a slap in the face to the host city, because the bulk of the business the commissioners are seeking is what the host city’s industry refers to not as ‘inbound’ but ‘runaway’.

The advent, development and tweaking of incentive schemes around the globe and within the US has been increasingly successful in drawing US productions away from their ‘natural home’ of Hollywood.

This year, claims Film LA, the situation is only getting worse, particularly with respect to TV productions. Long-running comedy and drama series are the cherries in the production pie all commissions aspire to attracting to their little patch.

Although they might not come with the kudos or publicity surrounding an Avatar, Hobbit or Harry Potter feature, long-running TV shows arguably do more to develop and sustain local industry by providing employment for local cast and crew over a much longer period of time.

Following his US trip last year, John Key was so sold on the potential benefits of attracting such productions the already-delayed Screen Sector Review was put on further hold while NZ incentive schemes to attract international TV production were re-examined. This writer understands the review’s long road to the Cabinet table will be over imminently, although even once that happens it’s unclear what information will be released and when.

In the US, that TV comedy and drama production largely falls into two categories, shows already on air and shows that might get to air, those produced during the annual ‘pilot season’. Unfortunately for LA, the city is losing out in the production of both categories.

Like most things in Hollywood, it’s a numbers game, and the figures for this year’s now-completed pilot season have been released.

A record number of 186 pilots were shot between January and April, at a cost of an estimated US$277.8 million. LA claimed 96 of those pilots, the second highest number it’s ever achieved. The flip side is that the number represents 52% of the total, the second lowest percentage LA has ever achieved.

More worryingly, the percentage of drama pilots (traditionally higher budget than comedies and, on average for those that make it to air, longer-running) shot in LA this year is much lower than in previous years. Fewer than one in four drama pilots shot in LA, down from over 60% five years ago.

That trend is also evident in what makes it through to series orders.

When networks announced their 2012-13 seasons, 71 drama and comedies (new and continuing) were announced. 47 were shot in LA (18 drama, 29 comedy). The remaining 24 were shot elsewhere (23 drama, 1 comedy). It was, Film LA noted, the first time LA-shot shows made up less than half the supply of drama.

Film LA blamed in part the state’s capped production incentive scheme, which runs a lottery as part of its decision-making process and bars LA-based TV shows from accessing the scheme. Noting the loss of “tens of thousands” of jobs as a result, Film LA claimed “financial concerns trump creative concerns when deciding where to shoot.”

The claim is hard to dispute, if also unlikely to generate sympathy. The US industry has long prided itself on adopting business models rather than the artistic or culturally-driven models developed in many smaller markets.

If the business model can no longer sustain itself without some changes, it isn’t alone. Beyond the basic tenet of successful business (sell for more than you buy), most everything else has changed. In the screen industry it turns out that buying most things is cheaper, often considerably so, outside of LA.

AFCI is not unaware of the potential problems of the increasing globalisation of the industry. This year it offers conference sessions on Global Finance, Global Tax Incentives, and one devoted to Visual Effects and Tax Incentives titled ‘A Race to the Bottom?’

Film NZ, along with others at the Locations Show, will base its offer on quality as much as cost. It’s a shame the results of the Screen Sector Review and any changes to incentive schemes aren’t confirmed ahead of the show. Uncertainty is one of the things US studios and producers dislike – a point they ably argued when encouraging the NZ government to makes changes, or clarifications, to employment law here.

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