Post-production studio under construction in Esplanade mansion
Posted by Kate Moran
April 26, 2009 1:00AM
A crumbling, gothic mansion on Esplanade Avenue that served as a setting for several films is about to become a post-production space that should help grow the movie-making industry in Louisiana.
A group of investors bought the house in 2007 and has begun renovating the neglected interior to include sound studios, editing rooms and a space to screen films, as well as apartments where directors, editors and technicians can stay as they shepherd movies through their final stages of production.
While filmmakers have descended on Louisiana in recent years, drawn both by its lush, tumbledown charm and by the lucrative film tax credits the state launched in 2002, they tend to stay only for the time it takes to shoot their footage. Then it is home to California, where editors begin the painstaking job of culling scenes and layering in sound.
The partners behind the studio-cum-residence at 807 Esplanade hope to keep more films in town during the post-production stage, an effort that should bring high-tech, high-paying jobs to New Orleans. They plan to cater to small and independent films, hosting perhaps two crews at a time inside the converted house.
"We want to essentially trap the business and double the amount of time they spend here," said Michael Arata, a principal in Voodoo Productions, a partial owner of the project. "Post-production can amount to 25 to 30 percent of a film's cost, and that has left Louisiana."
The house Arata and company chose sits on the edge of the French Quarter, at Esplanade and Bourbon Street, and offers an expansive view of the downtown skyline from the third floor. A rusted balcony runs along the side of the house, allowing guests to peer down at the courtyard that until recently was festooned with thick tropical overgrowth.
The house was built in 1859 for the ship captain William Whann and was owned in more recent times by Leon Impastato, a landlord with extensive holdings in the French Quarter. It had been carved up into tiny, tenement-like apartments, but the current owners have largely gutted the interior, taking care to preserve marble fireplaces and other historic elements.
"This place got tremendous hard, hard use," Arata said.
Elaborate cornices and ceiling medallions have survived inside the front parlor, a room Arata said would hold a large screen that filmmakers could use to view a day's edits or host a local premiere. The parlor's murals are preserved behind a silken fabric draped over the walls during the filming of the recent Brad Pitt movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Other rooms in the house will be made distinctly modern, including a third-floor mixing room that will be sealed with a rubber floor to keep ambient noise out. The house will also have Foley stages, where technicians can manufacture sounds such as footsteps or the clattering of hooves.
Arata, an actor and film producer, is pursuing the venture with Jerry Daigle, an attorney and fellow principal in Voodoo Productions. They are collaborating with Peter and Susan Hoffman, the founders of Seven Arts Productions, an independent producer and distributor that brings a roster of well-known clients to the effort. Advantage Capital Partners, a venture capital firm that has been a longtime supporter of the movie industry in New Orleans, also has joined as an investor.
The partnership received historic, new market and film infrastructure tax credits to birth the venture, which will be called Seven Arts Post. Arata did not disclose the total value of the project, but he said the group purchased the house on Esplanade for $1.7 million.
At least a handful of post-production spaces already exist in Louisiana, including Digital FX in Baton Rouge and Storyville and Swelltone Labs, both in New Orleans. Seven Arts is unique in offering small apartments, complete with individual kitchens and bathrooms, where directors, editors and others can stay with their families for several weeks or even months.
Arata said editors often pare down a film from a sterile cubicle in Hollywood. The opening of the space at 807 Esplanade will allow those editors to soak up the same lush atmosphere as the actors and director do, an advantage Arata believes could influence the ultimate shape of a film.
"The way the project was envisioned was as a unique opportunity for people to live and work in the same place," Daigle said. "The editor could come down and begin working as the film is progessing to see the material and how it is being put together, which would enhance his ability to improve the project and make sure everything is consistent and looks good."
Louisiana implemented a tax credit for film production in 2002, and since then state residents have earned a total of $250 million in wages from the movie-making business. Chris Stelly, the director of film and television at the state's Office of Entertainment Industry Development, said some of the jobs that will be created at Seven Arts Post will be permanent positions, not the transient sort that disappears once the shooting of a film concludes.
While the group behind Seven Arts Post hopes to attract filmmakers shooting in New Orleans, it also hopes to perform editing, sound, color correction and other post-production work for directors who film in locations beyond New Orleans. Those jobs would be relatively stable and permanent.
"The more we as a state are able to offer from pre- to post-production, the better able we will be to grow an indigenous industry," Stelly said. "We're really pleased that our infrastructure in Louisiana continues to grow and mature, helping lay the cornerstone for permanent jobs in the entertainment industry."