Monday, 17 March 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1128: California Rest In Peace.

A few days ago I wrote about how California's being outshone by other states, especially Louisiana, when it comes to film and TV production, and how producers are calling for tax breaks to restore the industry in the state, and now there's a petition calling for California's state government to do something, anything, to reverse the stats seen in this infographic they provided:

I don't doubt that any of these stats are true, however, I do doubt that California's politicians and the big studios and producers can do anything to fix it since they're a big part of the problem.

To look at how everything went wrong in a state where everything is supposed to be so right, we need to go into the Way-Back machine for a little history lesson.

Legend says that bad weather was the reason Hollywood and Los Angeles became the centre of the movie universe. The legend is that the producers of the film The Squaw Man were going to shoot their film in Albuquerque while avoiding the Edison Trust that made filming in New York a pain in the ass. But bad weather made them take the train to the end of the line in Hollywood, California.

The truth is a little more complicated. Film companies had been filming in California almost as soon as they could get a camera on a train. There were very specific reasons for this:

1. NATURE: The weather is generally sunny, mild, and easily predictable. The landscape is also wildly varied from desert wastelands, to forests, to mountains, and jungles were easily faked. Since most filmmaking at that time relied on using sunlight and shooting outdoors, such weather was pretty important.

2. INFRASTRUCTURE: From the turn of the century to the 1960s California was the centre of dozens of massive infrastructure projects providing low cost water and electricity to large swathes of the state which contributed to the…

3. LOW COST OF LIVING: Those infrastructure projects made huge chunks of formerly unusable land not only usable, but cheap, because there were lots of it. That means that the big studios could build huge production facilities, and their employees could build and/or buy houses. Not only houses, but nice houses, with comparatively cheap utility rates. These homes were also adjacent to some of the most fecund agricultural lands in North America. Which meant groceries were cheap too.

This ride continued through to the 1960s with Hollywood and aerospace dominating the southernmost third of the state and Silicone Valley in the north. The Golden State seemed truly golden as people flooded into the region searching for the American dream.

Now you have to ask:
Well, like so many things it all started to go wrong in the 1970s.

The upper-middle class baby-boomers who had "dropped out" in California chasing free love, cheap dope, and sunshine began to drop into the state's cultural, economic, and political mainstream. They had embraced a simplified form of the "Small Is Beautiful" philosophy that called for cutting back on spending on things, and spending more on people.

The idea was that if they stopped building and expanding then everything will exist in a state of perfect equilibrium, and the state's seemingly never ending wealth could then pay for a variety of anti-poverty programs that would solve all of society's ills. 

Since at the time southern California was choking under a thick layer of smog caused by the region's explosive, and poorly managed growth, it seemed like a great idea.

This caused two things to happen.

Taxes went up, regulations grew exponentially not only controlling what, how, and where anything could be built, but what could be grown and how in California's fertile central valley.

The California electorate began to stratify along class lines with an alliance forming between the very top and the very bottom of the economic scale. The rich could either afford to pay the high taxes, or at least the ways of legally avoiding them, as well as manipulate the state's stringent regulatory regime through political patronage. Meanwhile the poor don't pay taxes, and didn't deal much with the regulators unless they tried to get out of poverty and tended to vote the way the rich wanted them to, because the rich's pet candidates had all the campaign money.

Meanwhile, the population of California kept growing, at least until recently, but they hadn't built any new infrastructure delivering power and water, since the 1960s when the population was much smaller. This means that the costs of basic utilities have skyrocketed far above the national average.

These factors keep the housing market artificially inflated, despite the near total collapse of the real estate market in 2008. Try to find a house that won't cost you your entire future, and you might end up living in Death Valley, and still be overpaying for it.

And to top it all off municipal and state government salaries and expenses, including their horribly managed public pension system, have skyrocketed. At least one city that I know of has declared bankruptcy, another has seen almost its entire government indicted on corruption charges, and many more cities in the state are on the brink of one, the other, or both.

This has made the state almost uninhabitable for the middle class. Small business people and the self-employed saw their profit margins whittled away, sometimes to almost nothing. They can't get any relief from the politicians, who care only about the feelings of their major individual and institutional donors, who think everything's a-okay, because they're a-okay. They aren't going to change the system beyond a few token gestures, because they run the system.

Now how does this explain runaway productions?

We all know about the top of the heap producers, directors and stars make great money, but they're only the top of the movie-making pyramid.

Below them are thousands of middle class people, many of them small-business subcontractors, who have to make a living. They can't afford to live in California anymore, and are migrating, like hundreds of thousands of middle class Californians every year, to Louisiana, Texas, the Carolinas or other states.

It's also now way more expensive to run production facilities in California as well, and thanks to new technology, filmmaking can now be done just about anywhere under almost any weather conditions. They don't need California, and since it's so expensive to work there they're moving onto greener, and possibly swampier pastures.

That's why Hollywood has stopped being the place where movies and TV are made, to being a sort of never-ending convention. It's where people go to make deals to make movies and TV, but then hit the road to other cities in other states to do that actual work.

Is there a solution to this problem?

I don't really see one.

But I'm a pessimist at heart. 

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