The cast of one newly picked broadcast series wasn’t exactly jumping for joy during upfront week. That’s when the actors from the ABC alien drama The Whispers, which stars Milo Ventimiglia, Lily Rabe and Barry Sloane, found out that the series would be moving to Vancouver after filming the pilot in Los Angeles. I hear several members of the cast were not happy, and conversations are still ongoing with the series’ producer, ABC Studios. In the end, all actors will likely move or risk being sued for breach of contract. While I hear it wasn’t spelled out to the cast going into the pilot that the project will definitely move if picked up, there is nothing in the actors’ contracts that guarantees that the show would shoot in Los Angeles. Actually, I hear there is language that indicates that the show could move once ordered to series.
Still, such uprooting is never pleasant and illustrates the toll runaway production takes on everyone. There are a lot of advantages to filming in Los Angeles — an abundance of production facilities and experienced crews, closeness to the project’s writers and executives, access to a pool of guest actors and directors as well as great climate and locations. The Whispers picked LA for the pilot mainly because it offered the variety of landscapes it needed, including desert. One thing Los Angeles does not offer is tax breaks, and that alone is pushing drama series production away from California.
Producing broadcast series is a very high risk business, with more than 80% of the shows not making it to Season 2. As one studio executive put it, for a network drama series, the goal in Season 1 is never profit but minimizing the losses. With no incentives for broadcast series that originate in California, filming out of state sheds up to $400,000-$500,000 off the budget of every episode, savings studios can’t easily pass on. Of 28 new drama series for the 2014-15 season, 20 will be filmed out of California as legislation to expand the state’s current $100 million Film and TV tax credit program is currently grinding its way through the legislature.
Los Angeles’ tally fell to an all-time low of four drama pilots this past season (plus straight-to-series Battle Creek for CBS), plummeting from 12 the year before to have the City of Angels slip to No. 2 behind New York and tied with Vancouver. Underscoring the benefits of staying home, all drama pilots shot in LA – The Whispers, CBS’ Scorpion and Stalker and the CW’s Jane The Virgin — went to series for a 100% batting average no other city came closer. It is rare for a CW show to film in LA but producer CBS TV Studios made it feasible for Jane by using facilities and logistical support it had available from recently departed CSI: NY. Los Angeles is gaining two new drama series, which filmed pilots elsewhere: NBC/Uni TV’s State Of Affairs, which shot in New York, under pre-pilot arrangement with star Katherine Heigl, and ABC/ABC Studios’ How To Get Away With Murder, which filmed in Philadelphia, so executive producer Shonda Rhimes, who has two other series filming in LA (Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal), can have hands-on involvement. Big-name talent in front and behind the camera is the main driving force behind keeping drama series production in Los Angeles. But in general, with the exception of Marvel, which films its series in LA, high-concept/genre, special effects-heavy dramas film outside of California and often outside of the U.S.
Introduced in late February, California’s multi-sponsored Film and Television Job Creation and Retention Act aims to put the program on a more stable footing and allow network pilots to be eligible. There is no word yet from Gov. Jerry Brown if he supports or will sign such legislation like he did on the last extension of the program back in 2012, but you could hardly find a bigger incentive for him to do so than the disastrous LA showing this past drama pilot season. With one of the city’s biggest advantages — skilled, seasoned crews — gradually slipping away as below-the-line talent relocates to states with tax breaks, the clock is ticking.
As for Whispers, ABC Studios hopes to bring the show back to LA if it does well and earns a second season. One of the frustrating elements in California’s current, bare-bones incentives program is that it only rewards series that relocate from another state, not those that choose to set production here. The program was named after an ABC Studios series, Ugly Betty, whose move from LA to New York to take advantage of that state’s generous tax credit prompted California to launch the initiative that subsidizes series that opt to move to California. However, because of the limited funds, the process is a lottery, and not all shows that apply get in. Last year, TNT/CBS Studios drama King & Maxwell, which was looking to relocated from Vancouver to LA, was among the lucky ones but got cancelled, and ABC Studios’ Body Of Proof was a beneficiary a few years back, moving from Providence, RI. If Whispers beats the odds of survival of a first-year drama and the odds of winning the California tax credit lottery, it will come home too.