L.A.'s share of TV pilot production drops to a historic low

Los Angeles, once the king of TV pilots, is rapidly losing its domain to New York and other rivals.

The L.A. region's share of pilot production dropped to a historic low in the most recent pilot season, as producers took their business to the Big Apple and other cities offering stronger tax breaks and rebates, according to a new report.

Among 203 pilots produced in the 12 months ended in May, only 44% (90 pilots) were filmed in the L.A. region, down from 52% the previous season and 82% from the 2006-07 pilot season. The rest mainly filmed in New York, Atlanta, and the Canadian cities Vancouver and Toronto, an annual survey released Tuesday by FilmL.A. Inc. concluded.

The decline has been especially sharp in the category of TV dramas — New York surpassed Los Angeles for the first time in filming one-hour TV drama pilots. The Big Apple drew 24 TV drama pilots versus 19 in L.A.

"When you look at it, it's just astounding," said Paul Audley, president of FilmL.A. Inc., which handles permits for the city and county. "On the TV drama side, we're just getting killed, and that's the major revenue production part of television.... We will continue to see losses unless California adjusts what is eligible for the incentive and the amount of money that's available as well."

The decline in the number of TV drama pilots is especially significant because dramas are considered the most economically valuable type of TV production, employing large crews and often over a period of several years. A TV drama pilot costs about $6 million to $8 million to produce.

As the initial episode of a proposed television series, pilots provide a vital source of employment for local crews. They also provide a glimpse into where many potential television shows will take root at a time when L.A. is more dependent than ever on television production to sustain the entertainment economy.

Industry advocates have for years bemoaned the exodus of big-budget feature films from Southern California, but Tuesday's report provides further evidence that L.A. is losing ground in television as well. One reason is that California's film and TV tax credit program excludes TV pilots and new network dramas.

Meanwhile, rival cities have been sweetening their own incentives. New York, for example, allocates up to $420 million annually in film and TV rebates, four times what California offers.

California lawmakers are reviewing a bill, AB 1839, that would bolster funding and remove restrictions to allow more projects to qualify, including new network dramas. The goal would be to help reverse a slide in the production of L.A.-based dramas.

For the upcoming fall season, nine of 29 new network drama series will film in L.A. But that's an improvement over last fall, when just five of 26 new network dramas filmed locally, according to FilmL.A.'s annual TV pilot production report.

One bright spot in the report is that L.A. remains the king of comedy. But its dominance is slipping in that area too. L.A. had a 76% share of overall sitcom pilots produced in the last season, down from 83% the prior season and 100% from seven seasons ago, the survey found.

Historically, pilots made in L.A. were highly likely to stay in the region if they were picked up for a TV series. That has changed in recent years, even for shows set in L.A.

For example, after filming the pilot episode in L.A., producers of the L.A.-based show "Graceland" took the USA series to Florida, representing a loss of $10.2 million in wages, according to FilmL.A.

The popular FX series "American Horror Story" moved to Louisiana after filming in Los Angeles to take advantage of tax credits in that state, the report noted.

California's tax credit has helped attract some TV shows to the state. Those include TNT's "Franklin & Bash," which filmed its pilot in Atlanta; "FX's "Justified," which debuted its pilot in Pennsylvania; and MTV's "Teen Wolf," which relocated from Georgia.