For generations New Orleans‘ appeal to artists, musicians and writers did little to dispel the city’s image as a poor, albeit fun-loving, bohemian tourism haven. As was made all too evident by Katrina, the city was plagued by enormous class and racial divisions, corruption and some of the lowest average wages in the country.
Yet recently, the Big Easy and the state of Louisiana have managed to turn the region’s creative energy into something of an economic driver. Aided by generous production incentives, the state has enjoyed among the biggest increases in new film production anywhere in the nation. At a time when production nationally has been down, the number of TV and film productions shot in Louisiana tripled from 33 per year in 2002-2007 to an average of 92 annually in 2008-2010, according to a study by BaxStarr Consulting. Movies starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Morgan Freeman, Harrison Ford are being made in the state this year.
Of course many states and cities have thrown money at the film industry, hoping to establish themselves as cultural centers. Texas, Georgia, British Columbia, Toronto and Michigan all wagered millions in tax dollars to lure producers away from Hollywood and the industry’s secondary hub of New York. There were 279 movies shot in New York State in 2009 and 2010. For all its gains, Louisiana still trails far behind the Empire State with 95 film productions in that period.
Yet New Orleans and Louisiana possess unique assets which make its challenge far more serious than that of other places. A Detroit, Atlanta or Dallas might be a convenient and cost-efficient place to make a film or television show, but they lack the essential cultural richness that can lure creative people to stay. The Big Easy is attracting that type, plus post-production startups, and animation and videogame outfits, giving a broader foundation to the nascent local entertainment industry.
“This is different,” notes Los Angeles native and longtime Hollywood costumer Wingate Jones, who started Southern Costume Co. last year to cash in on the growth in production in the state. “It’s the combination of the food and the culture that appeals to people. It must have been a lot like what Hollywood was like in the ’20s and ’30s. It’s entrepreneurial and growing like mad.”
Critically, Jones adds, Louisiana’s unique culture comes without the fancy New York or Malibu price tag. This is a place where small roadside cafes serve up bowls of gumbo, crayfish and shrimp that would cost three to five times as much in New York, the Bay Area or Los Angeles. Excellent music — from rap to jazz to blues and gospel — can be found simply by walking into a bar and paying the price of a couple of beers. And then there are housing costs, roughly half as high, adjusted for income, than the big media centers.
This mixture of affordability and culture is attracting young people — the raw material of the creative economy — as well as industry veterans like Jones. In 2011, we examined migration patterns of the college-educated and found, to our surprise, that New Orleans was the country’s leading brain magnet. New Orleans was growing its educated base, on a per capita basis, at a far faster rate than much-ballyhooed, self-celebrated places like New York or San Francisco. In fact, its most intense competition was coming from other Southern cities such as Raleigh, Austin and Nashville, the last two of which also share a strong, and unique, regional culture.
Another sure sign of the city’s growing appeal has been a torrent of applications to Tulane University, the city’s premier institution of higher education. In 2010 the school received 44,000 applications, more than any other private university in the country. The largest group, more than even those from Louisiana, came from California, with New York and Texas not far behind.
Increasingly, the Big Easy merits comparison not only to the Hollywood of the 1920s but also Greenwich Village of the ’50s, Haight-Ashbury in the ’60s and “grunge” Seattle in the mid-’80s. These, too, were once appealing places that were less expensive, less predictable and more open to cultural outsiders. Now they’re increasingly too pricey and yuppified for creative people bereft of large trust funds.
Ironically, Katrina provided the critical spark for this transformation. It devastated the torpid, corrupt political and business culture that viewed the arts as quaint and fit only as a selling point for tourists. In its place came more business-minded administrations in New Orleans and in Baton Rouge, the state capital. In both places, economic developers seized on motion pictures, television, commercials and videogames as potential growth industries that fit well with the state’s expanding appeal to this generation’s creators.