Louisiana film investment could win Oscar gold

Kate Archer Kent Feb 24, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Sunday will bring us the Academy Awards, putting the glamour of Hollywood firmly in the spotlight. The other 364 days of the year, though, the movies are a business — a business that everybody wants to get a piece of.

Forty states offer film production tax credits — trying to draw producers and studios and the trickle-down effects of a big budget picture. Louisiana took a slightly different approach. The Bayou State was the lead investor on a film that just happens to be nominated for an Oscar.

Kate Archer Kent from Red River Radio reports.

Kate Archer Kent: Jobs in Louisiana revolve around oil and gas, chemicals, ship building — but not film animation. So a few years ago, the state took a chance on an animated short film that would be made entirely in Louisiana.

Stephen Moret: We knew we were taking a bit of a risk in this case.

That’s Stephen Moret, Louisiana’s secretary of economic development. He wanted to show off Louisiana’s creative talent. So the state gave seed money to open an animation studio in Shreveport. It’s called Moonbot Studios. The state shelled out nearly $700,000 for the studio’s first film. The 15-minute film is titled “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.” It’s a wordless, whimsical story that portrays the power of books. Moret says with an Oscar nod, Louisiana hit the jackpot.

Moret: Our great aspiration, our vision for this entire project from the state’s perspective was that this would become a very unique and compelling marketing tool.

Moonbot Studios says it’s been able to recruit young, ambitious computer animators to Shreveport. Here’s the company’s managing partner Lampton Enochs.

Lampton Enochs: Really the state kind of opened the spigot for us. It gave us enough money to make some strategic hires, to start really planning out what we needed to do for the film and for the company.

Beavan Blocker was hired fresh out of art school in Florida. He’s one of several dozen animators who stayed on after the film was completed. Blocker says sometimes Shreveport feels a little too small town. He wishes it had the nightlife and creative energy of a city like San Francisco.

Beavan Blocker: It’s kind of a mixed bag in a way.

After all, he does have an animation credit on an Oscar-nominated film. Blocker’s only 25 years old. And he says it’s unlikely he’d get this opportunity at a large Hollywood studio so soon in his career.

Blocker: You can’t throw a rock in California without hitting an animator, or somebody else kind of in that field, and I don’t think we’re there yet.

But Louisiana’s Stephen Moret says these tax credits have created hundreds of new jobs.

Moret: The jobs are being created so quickly we’re struggling a little bit to keep up with demand for talent.

So is propping up the industry worth the investment? Cornell University professor Susan Christopherson studies how states use incentives to lure film projects. She says doling out millions of dollars to producers each year isn’t a prudent way to spend public money.

Susan Christopherson: Louisiana can be in this for the long haul, but that means that Louisiana taxpayers are going to be subsidizing this industry for a very long time.

Christopherson says even if the state is a location for a film shoot, often the post-production is done back in California. Louisiana is trying to stop this migration by showing producers it has the workforce to get the job done. For now, at least, Moonbot Studios plans to hire about 15 more animators this year.

In Shreveport, La., I’m Kate Archer Kent for Marketplace.

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