New Orleans’ film industry blooms

Long an artistic hotbed, Louisiana’s largest city is becoming known as “Hollywood South”, acting as the setting for more than 60 feature films in 2012.

A group of people huddled by a nondescript wrought-iron black door on a quiet street in New Orleans’ French Quarter, whispering excitedly and peering up towards the building’s second storey. Next to the doorbell, someone had scrawled “Angelina”, enclosed in a heart.

In 2007, celebrity power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie purchased this 1800s mansion in New Orleans, sparking a wave of high-profile home buying in the city. Star sightings have become increasingly commonplace in the Big Easy, from seeing Scarlett Johansson in the grocery story to having A-list neighbours such as Nicolas Cage and Sandra Bullock.

Long an artistic hotbed, New Orleans has recently emerged as an epicentre for the film industry, earning the nickname “Hollywood South,” all catalysed by the film-related tax incentives that were instituted across Louisiana in 2002. In 2012, 61 feature films were shot in the city, including famed director Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Now You See Me starring Woody Harrelson. On any given day, crews can be seen rolling around New Orleans’ streets, working on the next blockbuster hit or independent flick, or filming television series such as American Horror Story.

Celebrities first drawn to the city for work often extend their sojourns for play, lured by the city’s laissez-faire attitude and robust cultural offerings, from top gastronomy to a rich music scene. Many put down roots, too, such as actor Channing Tatum who filmed 21 Jump Street in town and now owns the Bourbon Street bar and restaurant Saints and Sinners.

“New Orleans has grown to be a place where people not only want to come and spend three to six months making a movie and enjoying the food and culture, but a place where they want to stay,” said Katie Williams, director of the organisation Film New Orleans. “[Tax credits] have created a world where it’s financially viable and incentivises that.”

New Orleans has a long history with the film industry, functioning as the setting for classic films such as A Streetcar Named Desire, filmed in 1951. But today the city can substitute for nearly any destination around the world. In June, 20th Century Fox transformed downtown New Orleans into post-apocalyptic San Francisco for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Such productions, from large-scale to budget, have the local economy booming. In 2012, $669 million in direct spending from the film industry flowed into New Orleans. Industries from steel manufacturers to ice producers are reaping the benefits, and many locals have picked up new professions and hobbies related to film. “A whole industry has grown up around the process,” Williams said, adding that about 80% of those involved in a set are locals, from extras to post-production teams.

Local Jonathan Ray runs one of the city’s most popular tours: the crowd-pleasing New Orleans Movie Tours. In addition to passing Brad and Angelina’s house, the tour takes visitors to more than 30 historic locations related to the film industry. While Ray said he was always was interested in movies, he did not consider related job prospects until about four years ago, when he noticed the local film industry was gaining momentum and started the city’s only movie tour in 2009.

The tour takes in sights such as the city’s iconic streetcars, which Vivien Leigh rode in A Streetcar Named Desire, and neighbourhoods such as Treme, which became a household name following the filming of the critically acclaimed eponymous HBO series that tells the fictional story of the neighbourhood post-Hurricane Katrina. The 2005 film Dukes of Hazzard – set in Atlanta – was actually shot in New Orleans, including a memorable chase scene near the Robert E Lee monument on St Charles Avenue.

Cinephiles on the hunt for celebrity sightings can find out what is currently filming via the Film New Orleans current productions list, while blogs such as the Best of New Orleans track the events that celebrities attend and restaurants they frequent.

Adding depth to the local film scene also is the annual New Orleans Film Festival, which is celebrating its 24th year this October. While still small in comparison to marquee film festivals like the Toronto International Film Festival, which draws about 400,000 attendees each year, attendance at the New Orleans festival has more than doubled to 17,000 in the past three years. “There’s a buzz and vibe that there’s something interesting going on down here,” said executive director Jolene Pinder.

Following the success of the film industry tax incentives, the Louisiana government has expanded them to cover more of the arts, including live performance and music recording. “People get this feeling that everything is improving in New Orleans,” said William French, president of Film Production Capital, a New Orleans tax credit brokerage company. “Optimists and entrepreneurs are flocking, starting new restaurants and doing interesting things culturally.” The ripple effects of such industry growth are sure to be felt across the city for years to come. And if there is any city in the US that knows how to celebrate a good thing, it is the Big Easy.