Sean-Michael Argo grew up in rural De Valls Bluff, Ark. After several years in multiple cities across the country, he is happy to be back in what he calls "the real South."
Argo, an associate producer at Lighthouse Films, is among new film industry workers settling into Lafayette recently, lured largely by state tax incentives and the rich cultural and artistic milieu of Lafayette.
"I fell in love with Lafayette right away," Argo says. "I've lived all over the country, and it is really nice to come back to the real South. You find yourself in long conversations with employees at Walmart, or just chatting up the bank teller or the grocer. And the Cajun thing — the culture still so vibrant here," he adds. "This town — there's no other place like it."
Lighthouse is in the process of relocating from Los Angeles and Houston to Lafayette. The company has rented a house in Freetown but doesn't yet have a permanent location. Its operations are very decentralized at the moment, and it hopes to land office and production space somewhere Downtown in the near future.
"We're moving all of our offices and all of our people," a nebulous core of full-time workers and many part-time and contract workers, Argo says, the latter largely being sought from a local pool. The company is working with SLCC, on whose campus it is currently filming, and it is in talks with UL Lafayette as well, according to Argo.
"Tax incentives are a complicated process, but for producers willing to work with the state, it's financially irresponsible for companies now to make films in states without these incentives," he says.
In addition to the state's base 25 percent tax credit for productions with at least $300,000 of in-state expenditures, Lafayette is also benefiting from a 5 percent increase if companies are headquartered outside of the New Orleans metro area. The bump for productions outside of New Orleans was added in an updated and reduced film incentive package passed last year. Additionally, if shooting with a Louisiana screenplay, another 10 percent is accessible (and the expenditure requirement is reduced to $50,000). That's a possible total of 40 percent in tax credits for shooting in Lafayette — an area with plenty of marshland and urban grit for a variety of scenes, as well as a pool of talent from UL Lafayette and SLCC film students.
To house some of the film productions, the Lafayette Economic Development Authority has leased the 8,500-square-foot War Memorial building at 2100 Jefferson St. from Lafayette Consolidated Government for one year at a cost of $45,700. In turn, LEDA provides the space, which was recently vacated by other city government agencies, to the productions free or at a reduced rent. LEDA spokeswoman Stacey Zawacki says two companies, Carmudgeon Films and Active Entertainment, have already set up shop, noting the arrangement is part of a test program the agency will reevaluate at year's end.
"The city wants young people to graduate from film school and not leave. The brain drain in creative industries is a major problem," Argo says. "The mayor has made it a mandate to help film companies coming here. He's said the city will do what it can to help facilitate the transition."
The city doesn't offer additional tax incentives beyond the state's, but it has been providing other assistance to film companies wanting to relocate here, says Kate Durio, who heads Mayor Joel Robideaux's CREATE initiative.
"That has included things like trying to help [film companies] with finding office space and warehouse space, with shooting locations, helping them communicate with fire and police and parking departments," Durio says. "If they need a road or a parking lot cleared or anything, we can help facilitate that. Anything that will help ease their transition into Lafayette."
"I fell in love with Lafayette right away," Argo says. "I've lived all over the country, and it is really nice to come back to the real South. This town — there's no other place like it."
Durio says the process includes a pre-production meeting where city officials can get a better understanding of a film company's needs, bringing in partners from LEDA and the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission.
Argo describes his company's films as wholesome, "faith and family" oriented "Hallmark" films: "There are a lot of talking dogs and talking horses."
Curmudgeon Films, meanwhile, is currently in production of a comedy horror film, set to be released in October.
"I can't say too much about it," says Curmudgeon Chairman and CFO Griff Furst, "but it's basically a satire of the horror genre."
Furst shot a film in Lafayette from 2008 to 2011 and fell in love — literally. He met his wife here, and soon bought property he still owns.
"I've shot all over the country and out of it. We had a good time here and we missed it," he says. "The new incentives were a nice bump in this direction, too."
Furst also mentioned as a key factor the attitude toward the arts and the cultural economy of Mayor Robideaux, whose 2018 "Robideaux Report" focused on the role of culture and technology in Lafayette's employment and economic job growth, touting his "CREATE" initiative.
"He's heavily in favor of the arts, and that's a huge thing. The art scene in Lafayette in general is incredible, unusually so for towns of its size in America," he says. "There are so many creative initiatives geared toward the arts, and so many artists live here. The bulk of our crew lives here, whether they studied theater or other arts in New York and LA and then came back — there are just so many artists here, more than in most small towns in America. Even if they haven't studied film per se, they fit nicely into this world."
While currently in production mode, Curmudgeon employs about 70 people. At its production office and a warehouse space in the old War Memorial building, it retains about 15 permanent employees.
Founded in 1993 and headquartered in Baton Rouge, Active Entertainment has also begun operating in Lafayette. The company develops, finances, produces and distributes independent television and feature films, including the recent Christmas on the Bayou, wherein a career-minded divorcee decides to take her 7-year-old son out of hectic New York City to her Louisiana bayou-country home for Christmas. When a childhood fling is relit, she must decide between the bright lights of the city and the temptations of home.
The state film incentives are part of a larger tax inducement program for Louisiana's cultural economy, with incentives for tech and media startups, stage and theater productions and music production and performance companies.
According to the state, more than 400 motion pictures, including "Dallas Buyers Club" and "Jurassic Park 4," have been produced in Louisiana since 2002, and its talent base for the industry has grown by more than 400 percent.
The credits max out at $150 million per fiscal year. More than $9 million are already reserved for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, leaving in excess of $140 million still available. Since July of last year, tax credit applicants have been required to participate in a career training program to receive film incentives — programs such as internships, workshops and continuing education — or to donate to local colleges and universities.