Less biz from Hollywood has some L.A. companies scrambling
Jackson Shrub Supply used to strictly supply movie and TV sets. Now it sometimes caters to debutante balls, where workers Jose Torres and Chris Guzman "flock" a tree to give it a snowy look for the event.
Over the years, the plants at Jackson Shrub Supply have made cameos in “Gone with the Wind,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
These days, the business is vying for bit parts in private weddings, college graduations and golf tournaments. The greenery renter is one of the thousands of local firms that provide the big-name Hollywood studios and production houses with everything they need to keep the cameras rolling, from security to props.
While they’re not included in the above-the-line credits, these businesses boast as big an economic impact as their star-studded counterparts. According to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, an estimated 116,300 people in Los Angeles County work directly in film and television production. That’s 35 percent of the industry nationwide. This includes everyone from actors and directors to cameramen and lighting technicians.
Businesses indirectly involved in the entertainment industry -- a group that includes caterers, production trailer crews and Jackson Shrub -- account for an estimated 118,900 local jobs. Jackson Shrub Supply’s recent move into the wedding business illustrates just how tough life has become for the smaller players.
A few years ago, the film industry found itself battling its biggest challenge in decades. DVD sales, once the lifeblood of studio revenue, had fallen 28 percent from their peak in 2004, as viewers turned to the Internet or pirated entertainment. Studios were able to claw their way back by tightening their belts, churning out fewer films and betting on established franchises like superhero flicks, sequels and remakes. They’ve embraced 3D technology, which has helped keep ticket prices high, and they’ve taken advantage of tax breaks in places like New York, Louisiana and Canada as a way of keeping costs low, a phenomenon known as “runaway production.” Disney Studios -- which saw profits drop from more than $1 billion in 2008 to $175 million in 2009 -- netted $618 million last year.
But the studio resurgence has left behind Hollywood’s other half -- the many small firms which depended on a steady flow of big-budget Los Angeles shoots to make a living.
“We can’t cut back,” said fourth-generation manager Julie Jackson, sitting in a conference room on her family’s 13 acres of trees and shrubs. “These plants are living, we need to trim them, water them. So we have to adapt to a different field than what we’re used to.”
Jackson’s family -- which has provided everything from cut brush for 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” to six truckloads of privacy hedges for Kim Kardashian’s wedding -- has weathered storms before. The 1988 Writer’s Guild of America strike took the business into the negative. And the same thing nearly happened again during the 2008 strike.
But Hollywood’s recent shift isn’t just a blip. Runaway production is now a regular part of the film business. And Jackson Shrub -- which employs 60 workers -- is making a permanent turn toward new clientele. In 2011, revenues from special events edged out television and now account for the vast majority of the company’s revenues.
“We were fortunate enough to already have a good reputation in Hollywood with party planners and people that could afford really awesome birthday parties,” Jackson said.
Other businesses have either tried to find new customers or chase the studios as they shoot in far-off locales. Lloyd Thomas of Los Angeles’s For Stars Catering now follows productions out of state with a fleet of mobile kitchens. He and three of his crew drove their full-service restaurant caravan to New Orleans in 2010 to work on superhero flick “Green Lantern.” They stayed on-location for six months. This year, he’s spent seven months on-location outside of California.
“We have to pack up our equipment and go to other places,” said Thomas. “The people that are here, unless they’re willing and able to travel, they don’t have a job.”
On-location movie production in Los Angeles is down 60 percent from its peak 15 years ago, according to FilmL.A., the nonprofit group that handles film permits in the city. In 2005, 79 percent of network one-hour TV dramas -- traditionally big spenders on production-related services -- were filmed in California. This year, that number dropped to 8 percent. A study by a Burbank-based payroll service company concluded that California lost $3 billion in production wages and saw its share of overall production wages in the U.S. decline 10 percent since 2004.
Recently, there was an uptick in on-location production in Los Angeles. But that was largely due to an increase in low-budget categories like reality TV, while big-spending productions like TV dramas are down. “The productions that are remaining are those that employ the fewest people, spend the least money and pay the lowest wages,” said FilmL.A.’s Adrian McDonald.
A 22-episode TV series sustains 840 local jobs and generates $8.4 million in state and local tax revenue, according to a report by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation.
Some production-dependent businesses have found ways to stay profitable without building a new client base. North Hollywood family-owned prop house History For Hire does much of its business strictly online -- sending photos of the props in its 33,000-square-foot space to customers and shipping orders back and forth around the world. Its inventory includes everything from authentic 1913 $100 bills to a replica of the “Fat Man” atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki.
“We’ve done films in Antarctica,” said Pam Elyea, who’s owned the shop with her husband for 27 years. “I can do that because I do smaller hand props. If I’m a company that does sofas, I can’t.”
Elyea is currently working on New York-based shows including “Boardwalk Empire” and “Smash.”
Other small businesses are scrambling to find new clients. Alex Dandino took over as general manager of Bravo Motion Picture Security a year ago, after his family purchased the company from a previous owner.
“Things were already pretty light when I stepped in, so I’ve been wanting to push into building security, construction security -- areas where there are stable jobs and our guards can always be working,” Dandino said.
Dandino oversees 30 guards -- 10 of whom work exclusively for his company. With fewer productions in town demanding their services, competition is fierce and hours are inconsistent. The shows Dandino does work on are spending less time on the streets and more time on soundstages, where his services aren’t needed. Outside of production, he provides building security for one client, and gets an occasional call for event security.
“We need more of that work so that we’re not worried about what’s going to happen every time a show goes on hiatus,” Dandino said.
Julie Jackson is getting fewer calls from set decorators and more calls from wedding planners looking to bring the movie magic to their clients’ receptions. Jackson’s stock of cherry blossom trees, once a must-have for productions looking to simulate Washington, D.C., on screen, are now being sent out as wedding décor. A simple plant setup can cost wedding clients about $1,500. In a recent big order for a wedding in Del Mar, Julie and a crew of four lined the wedding aisle with 14-foot Italian Cypress trees, built massive pepper trees in the reception hall and edged the dance floor with three-foot hedges -- a total price tag of $30,000.
The company, which has long depended on word-of-mouth marketing within Hollywood, is making a push for sports franchises, educational institutions, cruise lines and anyone else that could use its products.
“If Hollywood never left again, it would be great,” said Tony Recio, Jackson Shrub management consultant. “We’d be back to what feels good and the loyalty we have there. But Hollywood has changed, and I think it’s forever."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the size of LA's television and motion picture industry. It accounts for 35 percent of the industry nationwide.