As TV production ramps ever upward, there’s a shortage of … everything
The new golden age of television has brought shortages of studio space and production staff “When it rains, it pours. That’s happening more and more often”
There’s a tombstone shortage in Queens. Eclectic Encore Props, a prop rental shop in the New York borough, is down to its last fake memorial, its stock of more than a dozen having been signed out to TV shows filming in the city. That’s left three series vying for the remaining grave marker. “They all need my tombstones because they’re all shooting scenes in a graveyard in the same week,” says Barry Godin, who works at the store. “When it rains, it pours. That’s happening more and more often.”
An explosion in American television production is threatening to overwhelm filming facilities from California to Canada to Georgia. Everything, including props and construction crews, has been scarce during the spring pilot season, when dozens of episodes of would-be series are churned out. Vancouver ran out of studio space, forcing casts to work in abandoned buildings, such as the former nut-processing factory where this season’s Wayward Pines on Fox is being filmed.
The boom is fueled by the original content ambitions of Netflix and Hulu and by free-spending governments competing to attract production jobs by offering subsidies that can make producing a show affordable even for studios on a budget. “The demand they’re creating is enormous,” says Ian McKay, chief executive officer of the Vancouver Economic Commission.
In Georgia, the third-most-popular state for TV show filming after California and New York, higher education officials recently created a certification program to fast-track students to work on TV and film production crews. That came after producers of the Fox TV drama Red Band Society arrived in Atlanta two years ago to film but couldn’t find anyone to build their set. They were forced to fly in their own construction workers. Says Justin Falvey, co-president of Amblin Television, a producer of the show, which was canceled last year after one season on Fox: “In many of these cities where you have these enormous tax rebates, you’re battling to get the best people.”
Equipment and personnel shortfalls sometimes occur even in Los Angeles, the biggest city in a state that in 2014 tripled tax credit assistance for production companies, to $330 million annually. The number of primetime scripted shows made in the city last year was 129, and the number of filming days for TV dramas has jumped 78 percent, to 4,374, since 2012, according to Film L.A., a nonprofit that processes filming permits in the L.A. area. If you’re a sound mixer or a prop maker or a greensman, who ensures the foliage in a frame looks native to the region where a show’s set,
you’re hired. Teamsters Local 399 in Hollywood is even looking for people to drive dressing-room trailers, known as “honey wagons,” after exhausting its roster of regulars.
“Our people are busier now than they’ve been since the 1990s,” says Edmond Brown, the business agent for Local 44 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents about 6,000 entertainment business workers in the L.A. area. “That’s solely because of the tax credits.”
The U.S. television industry aired a record of more than 400 scripted series in 2015, up from 352 the previous year. In 2016, Netflix alone will devote $5 billion to programming, whereas Time Warner’s HBO plans to spend more than $1 billion on original series.
The production incentives war that’s helped create the shortages began in the 1990s, when Canada began doling out subsidies to lure studios across the border. Nearly 19,000 people were employed by the film and TV industry in British Columbia last year. Aided by a favorable exchange rate, the number of productions shot in Vancouver jumped 40 percent.
In the U.S., 35 states offer production assistance, according to Cast & Crew Entertainment Services, which provides payroll and management services for the industry. Several states give studios tax credits, rebates, or grants of about 30 percent of certain production spending.
Georgia’s current tax incentives started in 2008 after the makers of Ray, about native Georgian Ray Charles, decided to film in Louisiana because of its subsidies. “It was a wake-up call,” says Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office. “We said, ‘Either we do the tax incentives or we won’t be in the film business.’ ” Last fiscal year, Georgia was the setting for 248 film and TV productions, including the CW Television Network’s The Vampire Diaries and AMC’s The Walking Dead. Atlanta is so busy it’s known as Y’allywood. To address a space shortage, developers are building a 270,000-square-foot TV and film studio on the site of a shuttered former General Motors plant.
When Falvey’s company arrived in Atlanta to shoot Red Band Society, the production team was set to pay handsomely for a custom-built set. But with 33 other shows shooting in the city, all the construction workers were tied up. Importing an out-of-town crew was a pain, but Falvey says he’s ready to work in Atlanta again. “We were saving $400,000 by not shooting in L.A.,” he says. “Even if we have to fly in construction workers, that’s still worth it.”
The bottom line The U.S. television industry produced more than 400 scripted series last year, a record. That’s causing shortages.