Friday, February 26, 2010

Is Hollywood the next Detroit?

An ad agency art director I know recently booked his first job in Argentina. He's having such a good experience that he wonders whether domestic film production –– like lots of other American industries –– is destined for oblivion, a victim of offshoring.

This question seems to come up every time somebody shoots their first production overseas –– and I mean always. Even back in 1992, when I shot my first overseas job, the old-timers rolled their eyes at my naive enthusiasm for the experience.

Back in 1992, the US dollar was incredibly strong. And even though a lot of productions took advantage of the bargains available, it wasn't tax incentives that kept the production communities in Hollywood and New York viable. Didn't hurt, of course, but there are plenty of other reasons people will pay a premium to shoot there.

1) The language barrier. You're not going to find an abundance of talented American-sounding performers. So if you have on-camera dialogue, you still have to cast in the States and travel them. (You can find actors who can sound American in Canada, of course –– arguably more than you can find in parts of LA.) This goes beyond actors, by the way. As a director, I need to be able to communicate seamlessly with my DP, Wardrobe, Makeup, Art Department, AD, and production team. I'm fortunate in that I speak Spanish, which makes working in a lot of places easier for me.

2) The look barrier. Sure, people in other countries can often look American. (The last time I was in Switzerland, I was stunned by how much more American they looked than Americans.) But that's just the white people. if you're looking for ethnic diversity, you might not find what you need. We couldn't find black people in any great numbers in Argentina. And there aren't a ton of Mexicans in Canada.

3) The look barrier, part 2. I once shot a job in Mallorca, part of which needed to look like an American suburb. How hard could that be, right? Turns out there's one house on the entire island that would play. We scouted Barcelona, too, to see if we could find other options there. Nothing. Thank God for the one house and some creative angles.

4) Believable performances. Most American directors don't speak Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Bulgarian, or Russian; most Argentine, Spanish, Mexican, Brazilian, Czech, Bulgarian, and Russian actors don't speak English. It's funny how being able to communicate directly with your actors generally results in a better performance.

5) A dearth of equipment. Sure, you can find most of what you need, but if you get into specialized stuff, you have to bring it in.

6) Travel costs. This applies to commercials more than films. For a four-day shoot or more, it can be very economical, but when you're talking a one- or two-day job, your travel costs become disproportionate to your overall budget.

7) Fear. I can't believe how difficult it can be to convince a lot of the people who have to okay your decisions that the world beyond our borders is "civilized."

8) Convenience. For clients or investors with other things to deal with than the masterpiece you're working on, getting on a plane for nine hours is a deal-killer. Hell, it's hard to convince some people to seriously consider taking a 2 1/2 commuter flight to Portland, Oregon, where the costs are lower, the crews are extraordinary, the talent pool is extensive, and the native population speaks English.

9) The US dollar. Right now it's ridiculously low. I can still get a bargain when I take productions to certain parts of Canada, Spain, Argentina, Mexico, etc., but frankly, I save almost as much by shooting in Portland and by the way, I get to ride my bike to the set.

8) Habit. Same thing that keeps ad agencies and studios shooting with (INSSERT DIFFICULT A-LIST DIRECTOR'S NAME HERE), even though they could get a much better piece, and have a much more pleasant experience, trying out someone less famous and more enthusiastic.

10) Specific issues with regard to look. Sure, you can bring in light switches, bathroom fixtures, elevator buttons, traffic signs, electrical outlets, appliances, license plates, all the things that are subtle giveaways that the piece you're looking at isn't quite American, but I once had a box of T-shirts held by Canadian customs for eight months because they were convinced I was importing them for resale. You really want to take that chance?

11) Efficiency of production. Yep, there are great crews and production teams everywhere in the world. But you can't touch the depth, knowledge, efficiency, and speed of the teams in Hollywood and New York.

12) Insurance. If your camera goes down in Hollywood, you can have another one on your set in the time it takes to drive from point A to point B. Sure, with traffic that can be more than an hour. But try that in most of the other destinations we like to shoot in. And then think about your more specialized stuff, which there might be one of in the entire country, with no backup to be had at any price.

13) Extensive secondary resources. Hollywood and New York have entire ecosystems dedicated to the stuff that we're familiar with. Any craft service person knows to put a plastic tub of Twizzlers on the table. Any hair stylist knows what a flat-top looks like. And any wardrobe person understands the subtle distinctions between a Patagonia jacket and a Columbia Sportswear one. Sure, a breakfast burrito isn't a reason, in itself, to keep productions in Hollywood. But the little things add up.

14) Stupid bureaucrats with weapons. I've had more than my share of arguments with armed airport personnel who insisted that my cans of film were not going to cross their border until each one was opened up and inspected by hand. Even in the age of digital production, there are still plenty of opportunities for some low-level bureaucrat to exert power in a way that costs you tens of thousands of dollars.

15) Hidden costs. In lots of places around the world, an outstretched hand isn't an offer to shake. And I'm not just talking about guys with leaf blowers who show up as soon as the camera truck pulls to a stop. In Morocco, for instance, it was amazing how many people claimed to be the king's brother-in-law.

I'm sure there are other reasons, but these are the ones that came to mind immediately. Anybody care to add to the list?