Film supporters in Baton Rouge, New Orleans at odds over union contract


As the Louisiana Legislature this week begins to debate bills that would reform, cut or end the state’s incentive program for film production, an internal industry dispute is pitting Baton Rouge-area stakeholders against their more numerous New Orleans counterparts.

At the end of this month, IATSE, the union that represents film industry crews, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers will begin negotiations for a new three-year contract. Like the last negotiation in 2012, the producers are expected to ask that Baton Rouge be deemed a “production center” for films. And, like last time, Local 478, the branch of IATSE that covers Louisiana and southern Mississippi, is opposed.

New Orleans and Shreveport are production centers, while Baton Rouge is not. The difference in status means a Local 478 member who keeps a New Orleans address and comes to work in Baton Rouge is guaranteed a $56 per diem, while a Baton Rouge resident who goes to work in New Orleans does not.

As a personal housing allowance, $56 a day isn’t much. But for the producers who must pay that money, the extra expense can add up. Patrick Mulhearn, executive director at Baton Rouge’s Celtic Studios, says the current situation raises costs for local filming and puts the Capital Region at a disadvantage when competing with production centers around the country. He says a production center designation for Baton Rouge could help spread the benefits of the state film program—currently, most of the spending happens in the New Orleans area—while lowering its cost at a time when its return on investment is under heightened scrutiny.

“It boils down to New Orleans versus Baton Rouge,” Mulhearn says. “It’s a shame that after all this time those two cities can’t learn to work together and be a super-region.”

Local 478 President Phil LoCicero says only about 80 of his 1,300 members are based in Baton Rouge. Mulhearn says Baton Rouge membership is closer to 135. Regardless, LoCicero says his members voted overwhelmingly to oppose production center status for Baton Rouge. Most of the crew base is in New Orleans, and commuting to and from Baton Rouge after working 12- to 16-hour days isn’t safe, LoCicero says, so a small stipend for housing expenses is helpful and appropriate.

“I hear [criticism] that it’s not fair. I don’t think Baton Rouge is second fiddle to New Orleans because of the production center status,” he says, adding that New Orleans hosted more films before there were incentives of any kind.

It’s a debate that has been overlooked or downplayed while the industry and its supporters fight to preserve the incentive program. But it does come up occasionally; Baton Rouge Rep. Erich Ponti raised the issue during a public meeting of the Entertainment Industry Development Advisory Commission, much to the chagrin of New Orleans State Sen. JP Morrell, who led creation of the commission. Ponti argued that making Baton Rouge a production center would level the playing field.

“Why are we competing among ourselves?” Ponti asked.

Morrell, who supports the industry and has proposed a number of changes to the incentive program this session, says he is aware of the film production center issue but doesn’t know much about it. He says he isn’t worried that a dispute over the subject will divide program supporters, who are focused on defeating the “apocalyptic” proposals that some lawmakers have put forward to limit or curtail film industry tax credits.

“If a $50 million cap gets through, there’s no industry anyway,” Morrell says, adding that the production center debate “definitely will be a huge issue” if the industry survives this year’s session.

However, by this time next year, there won’t be much that can be done about Baton Rouge’s status under the union contract because such contracts typically last for three years. Negotiations between the union and the producers alliance are scheduled for April 27 to May 1, Mulhearn says.

The last time the union contract was up for renewal in 2012, Gov. Bobby Jindal issued a letter supporting production center designation for Baton Rouge. Jindal said the change “would help our state continue to cultivate and sustain its thriving film and TV production industry.” Read Business Report feature about the issue from 2012.

—David Jacobs

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