Culver City, Calif., was once known as "the heart of screenland." It's where the original King Kong, Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers and the classic Citizen Kane were shot.
Later, the back lots and soundstages there were used to tape television's The Andy Griffith Show, Batman and The Green Hornet. The exterior of Culver Studios' mansion was featured in the opening credits for Gone with the Wind. And inside were the offices of movie legends Orson Welles, David O. Selznick, Cecil B. DeMille and, later, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.
But it seems the iconic mansion is the latest victim of a syndrome going around Hollywood these days: runaway productions. Movies and TV shoots are being lured to other states with tax incentives.
James Cella, who heads Culver Studios, is putting the mansion up for lease. "Hopefully, people who want part of that karma to rub off on them are interested in the mansion," he says.
Let's Make A Deal
Cella is still reeling from having lost one of his biggest tenants, the syndicated game show Deal Or No Deal. The producers of NBC's popular show found a better deal in Waterford, Conn., where the state offers production companies a 30 percent tax credit.
"It burns," says Cella as he tours the studios where Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich once worked. "I don't like it. It was a huge blow. They moved to Connecticut for a huge tax rebate. I could give everything away for free and still couldn't make up for tax breaks."
Hollywood's competition is now states like New Mexico, Arizona, Michigan and Louisiana — states that never had much film and television production before. Ironically, as a consultant for a studio in Brooklyn, Cella successfully lobbied for a 5 percent tax credit to lure productions to New York. "Boy, did I create a problem for myself now," he says, adding that as a result of tax incentives in 40 other states, California has lost as much as 70 percent of its on-location production.
"It's the below-the-line workers — the crews on movies and TV shows. They don't work if the show leaves L.A.," Cella says.
Gone With The Wind
That exodus, in turn, affects the entire Los Angeles economy: the caterers, store owners, dry cleaners, restaurants and even Hollywood's biggest prop house, 20th Century Props, which went out of business last week with a huge auction.
For five days last month, auctioneers bid on owner Harvey Schwartz's prized possessions, including a replica of Howard Hughes' chair, Austin Powers' escape pod, and a huge T-Rex skeleton.
"I'm really torn up," says Schwartz. "It's very painful to watch all these products go up for auction. It's a tragedy."
He says the runaway production situation prompted him to liquidate his entire collection of 91,000 props. He points to Detroit, which offers a 42 percent tax incentive. Leaving L.A. to film in such locations is an enticing offer to TV producers like Eric Schotz, president of LMNO Productions.
"Can you blame them?" asks Schotz. "Production people are trying to squeeze every dollar out of production. So they're trying to get every tax benefit they can get. The fact is, you have to shoot in Ireland or Iowa to get it, but there are tremendous tax benefits."
In July, California finally began offering tax incentives to keep films and TV shows shooting in California. The state's movie star governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, pushed through the plan to spend $68 million to lure productions to stay in the state.
But the new law was a little too late for Schwartz. As the auction sold off his props, he took a sentimental last walk through his massive 200,000-square-foot warehouse. With rows and rows of furniture, lamps, signs and props, it was like the ending scene of Citizen Kane.
"Rosebud," Schwartz joked. "Where are you, Rosebud?"
He worries that as productions leave for other locales, Hollywood will never be the same. "Most of the really great talent behind the talent, the grips and carpenters, they're all leaving," he notes, adding that Hollywood is losing things like his 40-year collection of props. "So, it's a real tough, tough game."
At a time when Hollywood is celebrating its 100th birthday, the number of production days for feature films in L.A. is at a record low. But some say Southern California still has an advantage over other locales: great weather and fantastic light. It's the reason film pioneers came west to make movies in the first place.
And all is not lost, even at Culver Studios. On the same soundstage that Deal Or No Deal vacated, ABC is beginning to tape Courteney Cox's new TV show, Cougar Town.