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State welcomes refugee movies

Sep. 1, 2005
Charleston Post and Courier
By Kyle Stock
"The Reaping" was filming in Baton Rouge, La., last week, but the production shut down when the reckoning that was Hurricane Katrina started playing on TV screens nationwide.

In addition to creole food and Mardi Gras, Louisiana had movies -- lots of movies. The state became a Hollywood darling in recent years, after it started dangling big incentives for production companies. "The Reaping," which will star Hilary Swank, almost came to South Carolina. But like many major film projects, it ended up on the Gulf Coast instead of the Carolina coast.

Now, South Carolina is welcoming back scores of film professionals who had moved to Louisiana for work. And some big-ticket film projects might follow them.

"I'm working through my vacation, what more could I ask for?" Jeff Monks, the state film commissioner, said Monday from a phone in Colorado.

In the days following Katrina's landfall, South Carolina's Film Office, a branch of the state Commerce Department, called all of the major production companies, sent e-mail blasts and increased its advertising touting the Palmetto State in trade magazines."We don't want to look like vultures," Monks said. "But we want to say, 'We're here, let us help you out.' "

And production companies, like so many businesses heavily invested in Louisiana, could use some help right now.

Calls to the Louisiana Film and Video Commission went unanswered Tuesday, but Monks said he is in advanced talks on a few big projects that were filming on the Gulf Coast or scheduled to start filming there in the next few months.

Jessica Holley, a 20-year-old aspiring actress, is one of many South Carolina natives who hope more productions come to the area. Holley moved to New Orleans in January and started winning an audition every few weeks. She felt like she had a better chance of getting a big break there and recently decided to stay in the Big Easy until 2006.

But her plans changed when she flew home to visit her family and Katrina took over the cable news channels.

Now she's living with her family in West Ashley, working at Chuck E. Cheese's and hoping the films follow her here.

Holley is driving back to New Orleans today to see what's left of her one-bedroom apartment, a ground-floor unit next to a canal.

"I'm trying to be very optimistic," she said.

Hollywood still holds the checkbook and the script when it comes to making movies, but the sets, and increasingly the talent, are nomadic these days, following the biggest incentives or the best exchange rates.

In the push to woo Hollywood and win silver-screen dollars, Louisiana has been one of the most aggressive suitors. The state offered big incentives starting in July 2002, including a 15 percent tax credit for productions with budgets over $8 million. The strategy paid off big, as Louisiana won dozens of productions, many of which were set in places that bear little resemblance to the bayou-laced Gulf Coast.

Production companies spent an estimated $377 million in Louisiana last year on a score of TV movies and some 27 feature films, including "Ray," "The Skeleton Key" and "The Dukes of Hazzard." In exchange for that windfall, the Pelican State shelled out $67 million in tax credits.

But Katrina has drowned that economic engine, at least for the near future, and talent scouts are searching for a Plan B.

"The sense I'm getting is that it's over," said Paula McLane, founder of Coastal Talent, an Isle of Palms business that represents about 100 actors and actresses. "People aren't going to put off a movie for a year just because of location."

South Carolina is a natural choice for projects washed out of Louisiana, McLane said. It has comparable charm, a beautiful coast and some attractive deals for movie-makers.

South Carolina rolled out an aggressive incentive package to the film industry in June 2004. State lawmakers took those measures a step further in May when they passed a law exempting major productions from local and state sales and use taxes.

Producers also will receive a 15 percent rebate on spending in South Carolina up to $7.7 million and a 15 percent rebate on wages up to $10 million.

A 2002 state survey showed South Carolina has about 1,500 film workers who collectively earn close to $30 million. Films that year accounted for $49.1 million worth of spending. But because of better deals elsewhere, the state garnered just $4.1 million in film spending in 2003.

Louisiana was luring so many movies that McLane opened a New Orleans office in January. About eight of her South Carolina actors and actresses moved down there in January, including Jarred Paige, a 28-year-old aspirant who goes by Jrod. Paige quickly won a part in "Failure to Launch," a romance starring Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker. He was three weeks into filming "Vampire Bats," a CBS movie, when Katrina hit. Now, he's heading to Nova Scotia to wrap up that project.

"After that, I'm going to play it by ear," Paige said. "I'll pret- ty much go where the work is, but it would be nice if some of the Louisiana productions came here."

McLane has offered to put all of her actors on the "Carolina list" and is encouraging new tal-ent to move here from Louis- iana. She doesn't expect to do business in New Orleans any time soon.

"My office is still underwater," McLane said. "But that's OK because my phone rings here."
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