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Local firms that rely on film industry fight to keep jobs here

In 1958, Ed Michelson started a motion picture catering company — Michelson Food Services — and made food for the cast and crew on such classic films as "West Side Story" and "Some Like it Hot."

Michelson was one of the first to operate a food service truck on film sets, and for decades business boomed, back when virtually all the big studio movies were filmed in Los Angeles.

Today, son Steve Michelson said that's no longer the case. When his father died, Michelson decided to start his own catering company, Sylmar-based Limelight Catering, which employs about 50 people and has been in business for 14 years.

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But Michelson said his catering company would be making millions of dollars more a year — and even expanding the business by adding more food trucks — if production stayed in California.

"We have the best weather and the best locations and it doesn't matter," Michelson said. "Even if a show or movie is supposed to be based in Los Angeles, they go to other states because they are getting offered bigger incentives."

He's not alone in the fight to keep his industry-dependent business afloat. Catering companies, dry cleaners, prop houses and many other businesses that rely on production companies for the bulk of their revenue have been forced to relocate to other states, slash payrolls, file for bankruptcy or close because of the lack of jobs in California.

Southland Lumber & Supply Co. in Inglewood closed in February after 68 years of being one of the leading suppliers of lumber to the entertainment industry. House of Props, one of Los Angeles' oldest prop houses, closed in December.

On Saturday, Michelson joined more than 600 other businesses, industry groups, politicians and community members at a rally to support legislation that would extend and expand California's film and TV tax credit, which is due to expire in 2017.

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The rally was organized by the California Film & Television Production Alliance at Independent Studio Services, a prop house in Sunland. After listening to speakers, attendees were encouraged to write letters and sign petitions asking state officials to support the recently introduced film tax credit bill. A similar rally, held last month in Burbank, drew more than 1,000 industry workers.

The bill, written by Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) and Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), who were among the local politicians who spoke at the rally, seeks to extend California's film tax credit and expand its scope.

Under a program enacted in 2009, California allocates $100 million annually to film and TV productions, which are eligible for up to a 25% tax credit toward qualified production expenses.

However, industry officials have been vocal about substantially increasing the annual funding to become more competitive with programs offered by states such as New York, New Mexico, Louisiana and Georgia

"It's no longer our birthright as Californians to expect the film industry is going to stay here," Gregg Bilson Jr., founder of Independent Studio Services and event co-host, said to the crowd. "We have to have incentives that are going to make us competitive with other states."

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Founded in 1977, Independent Studio Services, which employs about 160 people, is one of the Southland's largest prop houses. To keep up with business that has left California, the company has opened offices in several other popular filming locations, including Louisiana, Georgia, New Mexico, New York, Massachusetts and even overseas in London.

Jason Waggoner, owner of trailer rental firm Star Waggons Studio Rentals, was one of three business owners or employees who spoke at the rally. Star Waggons, whose trailers are ubiquitous on sets across the U.S., is based in Sylmar and employs just under 100 people.

California must remain competitive, Waggoner said, or risk "losing this unique industry forever."

"Our industry is packing up and leaving our state, and unfortunately it's leaving faster and faster," he said. "It's affecting all corners of the economy. Whether it be that we have to cut payroll from jobs or limit spending to literally hundreds of local vendors, the effects are real."

Co-host Ray Bidenost, principal of Chef Robert Catering in Sun Valley, also said legislative changes are necessary. Although Bidenost's company has locations in Atlanta and Louisiana, he said he wants more filming to return to his home state.

"We always talk about runaway production — but what about runaway businesses?" he said in an interview. "Industry businesses are leaving or shutting down..I believe if we extend and increase [the tax credit], more production will come back."

saba.hamedy@latimes.com 

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