rolling away

Not even TV shows set in Hollywood can afford to film there anymore

June 5, 2014
June 5, 2014

The USA network drama Graceland, about a group of undercover federal agents living together in a Southern California beachfront home, seems a no-brainer to be filmed in—where else?—Los Angeles. But instead, the series, which kicks off its second season June 11, is shot all the way on the other side of the country, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

While Hollywood and the rest of Los Angeles has been the center of the TV and film industry for decades, that’s all changed in recent years as other states and provinces have lured productions away with budget-saving tax incentives. Hollywood used to stand in for any location around the world; now even shows that are actually set in and around LA can no longer afford to shoot there.

California operates a relatively meager $100 million film and TV tax credit program, in which certain productions (like TNT’s Major Crimes) are selected to receive credits—which will cover approximately 20% of production costs—via an annual lottery system. A record 497 applications were submitted for this year’s lottery, and roughly 23 projects will receive credits (this year’s winning TV and movie productions will be announced July 1).

“They’ll literally pull names out of a hat, and if you don’t get selected for the lottery, you get hit with the full broadside of taxes there,” Graceland creator and executive producer Jeff Eastin tells Quartz.

The Graceland pilot was filmed in LA, but after the show didn’t win the California lottery, it opted to shoot in Florida instead. “The number I hear thrown about is a 30% savings,” says Eastin. “If you’re talking literally $300,000 on every $1 million, that’s pretty substantial when our budgets are $2-$3 million [per episode]. The cost savings are really substantial when ultimately you’re trying to put as many dollars as you can on the screen. Especially for a cable show, where the budgets aren’t what big networks shows are, we’re counting every dollar.”

Graceland is just one of several productions forced to flee California in recent years. Last year, TV dramas shot approximately 4,100 days in Los Angeles, down 39% from its recent high in 2008. Meanwhile, LA’s movie shooting days totaled 7,000, down 50% from its 1996 high of 14,000 days.

While most sitcoms can be filmed exclusively on soundstages and therefore continued to be largely Los Angeles-based, TV dramas often require substantial location shooting. Of the 28 new drama series picked up for next season, 20 of them will be filmed outside of California.

The big reason is the incentive programs, which have attracted productions to places like Louisiana (True Detective, American Horror Story: Coven), Georgia (The Walking Dead, The Vampire Diaries, Resurrection), North Carolina (Under the Dome, Sleepy Hollow, Homeland), Maryland (House of Cards, Veep), Tennessee (Nashville), London (24: Live Another Day), Vancouver (Arrow, Once Upon a Time, Supernatural), Toronto (Hannibal, Suits, Reign), Calgary (Fargo) and—in a recent resurgence thanks to a renewed focus on incentives—New York (The Blacklist, The Good Wife, The Americans, and Person of Interest, among many others).

To stop the hemorrhaging, California is trying to play catchup. Legislation to expand the state’s film and tax credit program has made its way to the state senate and is expected to be voted on later this summer.

Until then, the Graceland cast—and the casts of all the other productions priced out of LA—will have to keep California dreaming.

Follow Jason on Twitter @jasonlynch.We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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