Moving up in the movies

It’s the second to last day of filming for “Left Behind,” a $15 million movie starring Nicolas Cage, that spent several weeks shooting around Baton Rouge.

Actors lounged on a sofa in the front of the Indie Stages, while crews set up a shot inside the plane set where much of the action for “Left Behind” will take place. The plane was originally used by the television show “Lost,” but it was souped up for “Left Behind,” which starts off with passengers mysteriously vanishing from a flight.

“You visit the set of a motion picture, it looks more like a construction site, with the ladders, the lights and all the cords,” said Jason Hewitt. His company, Indie Stages, leases a former National Guard armory from the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport. “Left Behind” was the first major motion picture to shoot at the location.

Hewitt said he spent “in the six figures” to renovate the armory and make it suitable for movie filming.

“It kind of looked like an armory,” said Hewitt, sitting back in his office about two weeks ago. “We renovated the offices and soundproofed a 6,000-square-foot space for the soundstage.” Indie Stages also had to patch up nine leaks in the roof so the building could double as a shooting space.

The experience of filming “Left Behind” in Baton Rouge has been “really great,” Hewitt said.

“Left Behind” is based on the best-selling series of Christian novels about life after the rapture. The movie will deal with what happens to people who are left behind on Earth after Christians are called to heaven. Sixteen “Left Behind” books have been published and the series has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide.

The movie is set for release in May 2014.

One of the biggest challenges has been to keep curious onlookers away from filming.

“The book series is so popular, there has been a huge amount of interest, no matter what part of town we were filming in,” Hewitt said.

Keeping onlookers away was especially challenging when “Left Behind” spent two days filming around the Mall of Louisiana. A bus crash was staged and a 60-foot-tall fireball was shot in the air. The city and the mall had to close streets for shooting and 300 extras were brought in for each day.

There were other challenges. In the movie, the scenes around the mall are taking place just north of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

“We had to choose places where there weren’t palm trees at the Mall of Louisiana, since you don’t have palm trees in New York,” Hewitt said.

Indie Stages’ business involves leasing space in the studio to motion picture crews, giving them room for filming and providing them with offices. Another of Hewitt’s companies, Films in Motion, does production and post-production work, usually for the clients who rent space at Indie Stages. The work can involve visual effects, film editing and color correction.

Both of Hewitt’s businesses are privately held, so he wouldn’t discuss specific financial details.

“What I can say is the nature of our business is like what Brad Pitt said. It’s like migrant farm work. There’s either a feast or famine,” he said.

But Hewitt is doing well enough to report year-over-year growth in the number of employees and time booked at the studio. The company now has 10 employees.

“We are in a growth phase and all of our profits are being invested back into the business,” he said. “We’re making long-term investments in Baton Rouge and the motion picture business every chance we get.”

Hewitt, 40, has been in the movie business since 2003. He became interested in the entertainment business when he was growing up in Sulphur and was involved in a school variety show during his junior year in high school.

“That planted the seeds of what I am doing now,” he said.

When the Legislature passed a lucrative film tax credit bill in 2003, Hewitt saw his chance to get involved in the movie industry locally. The bill provides an income tax credit for 30 percent of production expenses and an income tax credit for 5 percent of payroll costs related to Louisiana workers employed on the movie or TV production.

“I couldn’t predict the impact, but I realized that if you incentivize any industry, more than likely there’s going to be an opportunity for growth,” he said.

He started small, first making movies for $15,000 to $30,000. As he got more experience, the budgets and the scope of the movies began to increase.

Hewitt now has more than 35 film and TV production credits to his name. He’s worked with the likes of Jeff Bridges, Justin Timberlake and Mickey Rourke. Films in Motion also has handled the sale and purchase of film tax credits for several dozen movie and entertainment events in Louisiana, including the Voodoo Music Festival.

“One, you get better at what you do,” he said. “And two, the longer you stay in this business, the more that opportunities will start presenting themselves.”

The economic impact of a movie like “Left Behind” is sizeable. The movie is set to spend $15 million on production in Baton Rouge, with most of the money being spent in an eight-week period centered around filming.

About $600,000 will be spent on housing and travel for the cast and crew. And the movie spent $125,000 on hiring extras during filming.

“That’s a big impact on an area in a short time,” Hewitt said.

The next step for Films in Motion and Indie Stages is to continue to grow the business, renting out space for big and small movies. Hewitt also wants to see the post-production side continue to grow.

“This is a big frontier for the state,” he said. “Budgets are being crunched and tax credits are a key component for putting together financing for motion pictures.”

Advances in technology mean that the same sort of hardware and software for advanced digital effects and film finishing that used to be in Los Angeles can now be found in Baton Rouge. It all comes down to the skill and experience of the people using the equipment, Hewitt said.

For “Left Behind,” about 90 percent of the crew came from New Orleans and outside of Baton Rouge.

“Baton Rouge doesn’t have the continuous work that New Orleans does and supporting a larger crew base is very difficult,” he said.

The key is to have enough movies consistently in production to build up the local workforce.

The New Orleans Video Access Center is set to begin offering intensive training classes locally next year in a range of movie industry jobs, from camera operators to production accountants to hair and makeup artists. Hewitt said that doesn’t mean anything unless students know there are jobs waiting for them once they get out. And heads of departments on a movie shoot, like visual effects supervisors or makeup artists aren’t going to come directly out of a training program.

“More work means more experience, and that’s the one thing you have got to have for film and television,” Hewitt said.