Film crews turn New Orleans into 'Hollywood South'

Story highlights

  • New Orleans is often known as "Hollywood South" for the amount of filming there
  • Dozens of films have shot in southeast Louisiana since Katrina, boosting the region
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(CNN)With its historic architecture, lush greenery and dedication to open-air entertainment, New Orleans often seems like a real-life movie set.

To many, the city IS a real-life movie set.
In the years since Katrina struck in 2005, the film and video industry has been key to the area's recovery, says Peter Loop, a former member of the Louisiana Film Commission.
    "As I look out the window (of my office), I can see cars with license plates all of different places: Arizona, California, Texas, Alabama," said Loop, whose brokerage and production firm, Loop Garou Entertainment, is based in the Lower Garden District. "People are moving here just to work in the industry."
    According to a 2014 story on NOLA.com, the film business brought more than a billion dollars into the state in 2011. Two years later, it even outpaced New York and California as the No. 1 location for film production in America.
    In the past decade, dozens of films and TV series have called the Crescent City and its environs home. And they're not just New Orleans-centric works such as "K-Ville," the short-lived cop series about the city post-Katrina, and "Treme," David ("The Wire") Simon's examination of the city's culture as it rebuilt after the storm.
    How about "Jurassic World"? The "21 Jump Street" movies? "Lee Daniels' The Butler"? "Looper"? "The Expendables"? All had some roots in New Orleans and southeast Louisiana. It's not for nothing the area has been called "Hollywood South."

    Money and credit

    Despite its distinctive look -- or perhaps because of it -- New Orleans hasn't always been a Hollywood hotbed for location shoots, unlike the inimitable New York or the very flexible Toronto.
    The 1987 film "Angel Heart" took advantage of the city's landscape for its 1950s-set tale of a haunted private eye. (In one long shot, all it took was the simple addition of old cars to Magazine Street.) "Easy Rider," from 1969, had an extended sequence set -- and shot -- during Mardi Gras. Oliver Stone's 1991 film "JFK," which featured Kevin Costner as Orleans Parish D.A. Jim Garrison, also had scenes in the city.
    But though the book "Black Sunday" was set in New Orleans, the 1977 film was moved to Miami, partly because the then-new Superdome didn't allow for the open-air stadium terrorist attack of the novel.
    And such classics as "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Jezebel"? Movie (soundstage) magic. (OK, "Streetcar" did shoot in the local train station.)
    Loop says the city, and the state of Louisiana, can chalk up their recent popularity to one factor: money.
    Since 2002, the state has offered film crews a generous tax rebate, and moviemakers have taken advantage of the deal. It hasn't been without controversy: In June, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a bill that capped the credit given to production companies, and opponents of the incentive have noted that it hasn't been very cost-effective.
    What's more, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported, the Hollywood studios haven't made much of a long-term infrastructure investment in the state.

    'People are making lots and lots of groceries'

    But David Akin, who owns EPK Louisiana, a production company that does behind-the-scenes and creative work for film and video shoots, believes that the business has been a net positive. A Louisiana native, he moved back to the state in 2007 after many years in Los Angeles and a few in Houston. He now lives in Arabi, just outside New Orleans.
    "People are buying houses. People are renting houses. People are getting cars," said Akin, who has worked on such projects as "Dallas Buyers Club" and "American Horror Story." "It's New Orleans. You know the saying here: 'Making groceries.' People are making lots and lots of groceries, and that's a metaphor for everything."
    He says he's hopeful that the changes in the tax rebate situation won't slow the train.
    "The bill that just passed is not as bad as we thought," he said. In some ways, he thinks, the bill may be helpful to the state: Tax credits have been strengthened for indigenous Louisiana filmmaking, Akin points out, and it's "tempered a lot of fraud issues that we've had." (The Louisiana Film Entertainment Association agrees: The new standard "may not be as limiting as it first seemed," the group wrote on its website.)
    In the meantime, Hollywood South remains a popular place. It hasn't hurt that some stars, such as Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock and Lenny Kravitz, have even moved there for a time. Akin says there's a deep well of affection for the city.
    "I try to make a point to establish relationships every day on the set, and (producers and directors) love New Orleans," he said.
    And business? Business is good.
    "I'm working on two shows right now," Akin said. "I've done more cool things in the last six, seven, eight years than I've done in a 30-year career."