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Pilot production plummets in Los Angeles area

Share of test episodes drops to historic low

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LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles, once the king of TV pilots, is rapidly losing its domain to New York and other rivals.

The L.A. region's share of pilot production dropped to a historic low in the most recent pilot season, as producers took their business to the Big Apple and other cities offering stronger tax breaks and rebates, a new report states.

Among 203 pilots produced in the 12 months ended in May, only 44 per cent (90 pilots) were filmed in the L.A. region, down from 52 per cent the previous season and 82 per cent from the 2006-07 pilot season. The rest mainly filmed in New York, Atlanta, Vancouver and Toronto, an annual survey released Tuesday by FilmL.A. Inc. concluded.

The decline has been especially sharp in the category of TV dramas -- New York surpassed Los Angeles for the first time in filming one-hour TV drama pilots. The Big Apple drew 24 TV drama pilots, compared with 19 in L.A.

"When you look at it, it's just astounding," said Paul Audley, president of FilmL.A. Inc., which handles permits for the city and county. "On the TV drama side, we're just getting killed, and that's the major revenue production part of television... We will continue to see losses unless California adjusts what is eligible for the incentive and the amount of money that's available as well."

The decline in the number of TV drama pilots is especially significant because dramas are considered the most economically valuable type of TV production, employing large crews, often over a period of several years. A TV drama pilot costs about US$6 million to US$8 million to produce.

As the initial episode of a proposed television series, pilots provide a vital source of employment for local crews. They also provide a glimpse into where many potential television shows will take root at a time when L.A. is more dependent than ever on television production to sustain the entertainment economy.

Industry advocates have for years bemoaned the exodus of big-budget feature films from southern California, but Tuesday's report provides further evidence L.A. is losing ground in television as well. One reason is California's film and TV tax-credit program excludes TV pilots and new network dramas.

Meanwhile, rival cities have been sweetening their own incentives. New York, for example, allocates up to US$420 million annually in film and TV rebates, four times what California offers.

California lawmakers are reviewing a bill, AB 1839, that would bolster funding and remove restrictions to allow more projects to qualify, including new network dramas. The goal is to help reverse a slide in the production of L.A.-based dramas.

For the upcoming fall season, nine of 29 new network drama series will film in L.A. That's an improvement over last fall, when just five of 26 new network dramas filmed there, FilmL.A.'s annual TV-pilot production report states.

Meanwhile, L.A. remains the king of comedy. But its dominance is slipping in that area, too. L.A. had a 76 per cent share of overall sitcom pilots produced in the last season, down from 83 per cent the prior season and 100 per cent from seven seasons ago, the survey found.

Historically, pilots made in L.A. were highly likely to stay in the region if they were picked up for a TV series. That has changed in recent years, even for shows set in L.A.

For example, after filming the pilot episode in L.A., producers of the L.A.-based show Graceland took the USA Network series to Florida, representing a loss of US$10.2 million in wages, FilmL.A says.

The popular FX series American Horror Story moved to Louisiana after filming in Los Angeles to take advantage of tax credits in that state, the report noted.

California's tax credit has helped attract some TV shows to the state. Those include TNT's Franklin & Bash, which filmed its pilot in Atlanta; FX's Justified, which debuted its pilot in Pennsylvania; and MTV's Teen Wolf, which relocated from Georgia.

-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2014 A16

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