If Shooting Has Wandered, Film Services Are Still L.A.'s Game

<i> Michael Storper is a professor in the Graduate School of Urban Planning at UCLA</i>

We have all heard a great deal about the problem of runaway motion-picture production. The story, oft repeated, holds that Hollywood is losing its grip as a center of the film industry: Movies increasingly are being shot on location around the United States and abroad by production companies in search of cheaper labor, more compliant local governments and more realistic scenery.

In recent years the mayor’s office, the California Film Commission and a succession of committees in the state Legislature have vowed to lure filming back to California. But this nearly exclusive focus on runaway production deals with only a small part of the story. As a result, we are missing opportunities to develop policies addressing the real problems that the industry faces here.

It was 1970 when California’s share of movies shot by American companies reached its low point of 22.5%. Since then the average has climbed back to just over 33%--the same level that it was in the early ‘60s. Thus there hasn’t been a dramatic increase in shooting outside California--just a continuation of a long-established trend.

More important, the key businesses engaged in packaging motion pictures and in providing the services involved in pre-production, post-production and distribution have become even more concentrated in Los Angeles--a result of basic organizational changes in the industry during the last 20 years. The big studios are no longer the whole business. Almost all of the actual production work, and much of the pre- and post-production activity, is carried out on a project-by-project basis with subcontractors. These subcontractors in turn stay close to home to maximize their access to negotiation and renegotiation of production deals and the assembling of production teams.


It is against this backdrop that shooting on locations outside California can be put into perspective. In 1984, for example, American production companies spent about $3 billion on their pictures. Two-thirds of these pictures were shot outside California. But when the overseas portion is eliminated, about half the pictures filmed in the United States were shot in California. The 50% of films shot in other states accounted for a budget total of about $1.4 billion. Of this amount, however, only $344 million was spent on location goods, services and wages, with the remaining $1.05 billion flowing back to industry centers--principally Los Angeles.

If we want to strengthen our motion-picture and television industries, focusing solely on attracting the shooting back to our streets is the wrong way to go.

The real danger is that the businesses that have concentrated here might become attracted to New York, Dallas, Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, Florida and North Carolina--places that have invested heavily in studio facilities. Except for New York, none yet have the specialized range of services or the quantity and diversity of skilled labor present in Southern California. But they are working on it. The policy for this industry must focus not only on runaway productions but also on runaway businesses.

The Community Redevelopment Agency has taken a modest step in this direction by designating an area at the east end of its Hollywood redevelopment zone as an industrial district for pre- and post-production facilities.

More must be done. The city must take an active role in securing, maintaining and improving the space available to the industry in Hollywood, as well as on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, where many of the industry’s people live. This would minimize transportation times and also give the industry’s smaller and more innovative firms a chance at survival. The industry could also be incorporated into other parts of Hollywood redevelopment. As a light industry, it does not need to be segregated from commercial, tourist and other activities. This would be far better than turning Hollywood into a touristic museum-like reproduction of its former self. In the bargain, real jobs in the industry could be preserved.