4:26 PM EDT, March 27, 2014
Moviemaking in America often comes down to one state's tax incentives versus another's, and how those tax breaks can shave millions off a producer's bottom line.
Two of the most politically aggressive states in this regard, Louisiana and Georgia, snag a lion's share of film projects. Need to shut down a substantial stretch of freeway for a few days? Most states will accommodate you, the filmmaker. Some make it extremely attractive by way of tax credits and rebates. This is why "Zombieland," the exuberant black comedy with Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson, ended up filming in Georgia. The story wasn't site-specific; it needed what it needed, in terms of desolate stretches of freeway and other requirements.
Cities such as Shreveport, La., and New Orleans and Atlanta serve as backdrops for Anytown, USA. Sometimes these locations even get to play themselves, New Orleans especially. New Orleans has the virtue of not looking much like any other city in the world.
But there's a downside to these economics, and to filming where it's cheapest. Pardon me while I complain about that downside a minute.
It's an occupational hazard, and a byproduct of seeing 250 or so movies a year. But watching the new Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie "Sabotage," I felt early and often that I'd been there before. I don't mean the story, the narrative excuses for the violence. We've all been there before. I mean the physical locations.
Since Georgia became a major and generous player in offering 30 percent tax incentives to visiting film productions, including above-the-line costs other states don't subsidize, audiences have spent considerable screen time hanging around the same suburban Atlanta streetscapes. "Sabotage" is set in Atlanta and some rural spots along a nice stretch of river. At one point a Mexican drug lord's mansion, supposedly in Mexico, appears to have been filmed in the same suburban Atlanta neighborhood we see in various other sequences.
Now: Who cares, really? If the guns are blazing, if the story and the filmmakers are doing their jobs, an overfamiliar set of locations matters less. The movie industry has lied to us since it began. Toronto plays New York, because Ontario's tax incentives are better than New York's. For "Insurgent," the next in the trilogy begun with "Divergent," parts of Atlanta will likely end up portraying crumbling Chicago. (Much of the second story takes place away from the city proper.)
In the Hollywood studio heyday, movies would recycle and reuse the same back lot locations — Andy Hardy's street, or an anonymous midsize college campus — over and over, with a few art-directed adjustments. Did people mind? Not much. Over time, however, people get that here-we-go-again feeling even without knowing why, exactly.
And although I've never actually been there, thanks to the movies, certain stretches of certain Atlanta suburbs are beginning to feel a lot like "Groundhog Day" to me.
Movies online, and on the radio: Michael fills in for Adam Kempenaar with co-host Josh Larsen 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday on "Filmspotting," WBEZ-FM 91.5. The longer podcast edition can be found at filmspotting.net.
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