Relocating Mobile Production: Los Angeles & TV’s Spatial Capital Showdown

The route from Vancouver to Los Angeles
Myles McNutt discusses how Los Angeles has been forced to rethink its approach to competing in a new television landscape characterized by mobile production
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Relocation, Media Industries, and City Branding.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In an age where cities like Vancouver, Atlanta, and Albuquerque have emerged as significant sites of television production, I’ve argued we are in an era of “mobile production” where a new television series has a wide range of viable locations to choose from, depending on their logistical requirements and, of course, the economics of the production, which I collectively consider as a city’s “spatial capital” in industrial terms. The result has been a downturn in television production in Los Angeles, which has forced the city to rethink its approach to competing in this new television landscape.

Historically, Los Angeles has competed for productions predominantly on the grounds of its infrastructural spatial capital: the city has an immense “crew base,” referring to the number of concurrent crews that can be working at any given time, and significant studio space. Producer Shawn Ryan notes “for a long time, I think L.A. just assumed ‘everyone wants to film here, we don’t have to do anything.’” However, the billion-dollar investments of states like Georgia and Louisiana in incentive programs dramatically impacted production in the state of California, prompting the state to expand its incentive program: originally set at $100m a year in 2009, in 2015 the state expanded it to $330m per year. As part of this program, which is funded through 2020, the state of California acknowledges the mobility of production by offering its highest television incentive—a 25% non-transferable tax credit—for “relocating TV series” that filmed their most recent season outside of California, an effort to reclaim series lost to other cities.

A graphic from the California Film Commission’s website highlighting the tax incentive specifically reserved for relocating television series

This relocation incentive functions differently than a traditional incentive program in practice. NBC’s 2016 time travel drama Timeless, one of the most recent series to take advantage of this relocation incentive, chose to shoot its first season in Vancouver because it was—according to Ryan, the show’s co-creator—close to $700,000 per episode cheaper to film in Canada due to the available incentives. In a deficit financing environment where producer Sony is trying to offset production costs through international sales and ancillary products (DVDs, etc.), costs matter, and the decision was made to film in what is—in a clear sign of its development of spatial capital—affectionately known as “Hollywood North.” But when shows relocate to Los Angeles (16 have relocated since the incentive was introduced in 2009), they are not necessarily saving money—Ryan notes it will likely cost more to shoot the second season of Timeless in Los Angeles, on paper. It is the other elements of spatial capital that are drawing productions like Timeless to television’s once-default home.

I spoke to Ryan ahead of this roundtable in an attempt to understand the decision to relocate Timeless to Los Angeles, and his answers spoke to the complexity of spatial capital beyond the surface of incentive programs. In some cases, the issues were specific to the show: if the show were to do an episode focused on historical events like the civil rights movement, Vancouver’s extras population lacked individuals of African descent, and the same went for stories focused on Latino historical figures like Cesar Chavez. But in other cases, its problems are common to productions based in Vancouver: while the surrounding geography provided impressive locations, such as a snowy trip back in time to visit Jesse James, it also rained so often that the production faced costly delays.

However, at the core of Timeless’ challenge in Vancouver was the finite nature of its spatial capital when it comes to the infrastructural requirements of television production. The show was housed in a converted warehouse without proper insulation, which meant every rainfall came with sound issues. Given the limited supply of experienced crewmembers, workers could easily be poached by other productions that paid more or weren’t a first-season television show with limited long term job security. The result was that Timeless had many workers in key positions who had little to no experience in the industry (such as a person wrangling 250 extras who had never been on a film set before), or else they had to pay to fly workers (like a costume designer) in from Los Angeles, which defeated the purpose of shooting in Vancouver to save money. As Ryan describes it, “we were facing unexpected costs all the time,” and Vancouver is “kind of a victim of their own success,” with too many productions vying for limited production resources—put simply, while a great place to produce a TV show on paper and for productions higher up the food chain, Vancouver does not have enough spatial capital to sustain its current level of production without creating complications.

Los Angeles’ success at drawing shows relocating from Vancouver—including FX’s Legion and Fox’s Lucifer in recent years—is based on the fact that its spatial capital runs much deeper than its incentives. Los Angeles does not need to brand itself as a media capital: it just is one. There is no shortage of skilled workers, meaning there’s no need to fly in guest actors or key crew from other cities. There are numerous studios in Los Angeles that have housed decades of TV production, and which give the cast, crew, and writing staff easy access to the set—Timeless writers are now able to attend weekly table reads, and Ryan says the three principal cast members live within 20 minutes of their new studio. There’s much less rain, too. While the expansion of economic incentives and the development of some degree of infrastructure in other cities has threatened Los Angeles’ place at the center of television production, its advantages when it comes to crew depth and other resources of spatial capital have never disappeared, and have still led some productions to shoot in Los Angeles despite not winning incentives in the state’s incentive system.

However, Ryan acknowledges “Timeless would probably not be in Los Angeles without the incentives.” Sony was certainly willing to keep shooting the show in Vancouver despite some of the production challenges: the issues the show was facing were significant, and the producers would have pushed to relocate regardless, but they would have been fighting an uphill battle without incentives. And that raises the real question for the city of Los Angeles: has the spatial capital of television production changed so significantly that it needs to sustain its current level of incentives forever in order to draw productions like Timeless?

When the current program expires in 2020, the state of California’s decision will be different than those facing states like Georgia or New Mexico. Without incentives, a city like Albuquerque might find its television production capacity disappear as workers migrate to states with healthier incentives and existing shows either conclude or relocate—if the incentives leave, the work building a production infrastructure could be fundamentally undone, at the expense of the local laborers who have come to count on that industry. But Los Angeles will always hold spatial capital regardless of whether or not there are incentives, and as other media capitals are spread thin in this era of “Peak TV”—where the number of scripted series is exploding rapidly—more shows like Timeless might look at the logistical challenges that come with finite spatial capital and decide it is easier to settle for Los Angeles, with or without this level of incentives. Los Angeles will always be a city of central importance to the television industry, but its future as a location for production may depend on whether it’s willing to continue investing hundreds of millions of dollars to weather the changing tides of spatial capital.

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