After Katrina, I used to joke that I couldn’t swing a dead cat near my home without at least one filmmaker there to document it. Indeed the influx of film productions to the city predates the hurricane, due largely to a bevy of generous tax incentives. After the storm, though, city and state officials began to see the industry both as economic revenue stream and a recovery engine. During my sabbatical this fall, I spent time exploring the local origins of the city’s relationship with the film industry. Surely, Katrina could have been not the first catastrophe that might bring commercial image makers and public image managers together?
Predictably the answer to this question is no. From earliest days of the New Orleans Association of Commerce, city business leaders in 1913 sought the presence of filmmakers in the city. Charged with resolving the fiscal crisis during the Reconstruction, the Martin Behrman administration (1904-1920) sought to modernize the city’s infrastructure and promote the port. Working with the Association, local officials went a long way to promote the city’s image as a business-friendly location. At the time, films were called photoplays or photodramas. The films’ duration was set by the length of the reel, generally about ten minutes. The city commissioned these one-reelers to spotlight the port and its primary industries for potential investors, particularly in Latin America. City representatives also saw films as a potential lure for the fledgling tourism industry. By the time of the 1927 Mississippi floods, which sent the city into another fiscal crisis, film news reels were one of the elements of a public relations campaign to promote the area, which had remained largely dry. This kind of film production, focused on documentary and news, is predictable insofar as they are parts of public relations planning and tourism industries.
Less predictable, however, were government relationships with the entertainment film production industry. New Orleans had a considerable movie-going audience in the early 1900s. The city had the first motion picture house in the U.S. and there were nearly 100 venues for film watching around the area. The largest theater purveyors were powerful Association of Commerce members and they commissioned the pro-trade films for the city. They no doubt wanted production to be closer to their exhibition chains. At that time many of their distribution contracts were with producers looking to leave New York and Chicago for warmer climes. Jacksonville, Memphis, New Orleans and Los Angeles were among their options. New Orleans had a deep labor pool, many locations, good climate, as well as the head offices for film distribution in the Deep South.
It is clear Behrman envisioned a local film industry early in his tenure as Mayor. He invited William Selig, founder of the Selig Polyscope Company and a Chicago-based entrepreneur looking to expand his empire. Behrman allegedly gave him the keys to the city. In 1909, Selig sent his best director Francis Boggs out to select a site in White City Park, an amusement park by the lake. Within the year the deal was off. Boggs advised Selig to relocate all operations to Los Angeles, where Polyscope failed to compete with a new breed of motion picture studios, such as Universal and Fox. The reasons for Selig’s sudden departure from New Orleans are unknown.
A year later, the NOLA Film Company launched the first New Orleans film studio. Located on Moss Street, in Bayou St. John, the studio was launched through the combined efforts of William J. Hammond, a lawyer-turned-auteur, and Rene Plaissetty, a French director seeking a U.S. home and refuge from World War I. The company made several films before Plaissetty left and the company restructured as the Diamond Film Company. Diamond held a public stock offering in 1917 and produced a short run of films, before shooting local events, and then going to the auction block in 1919. A couple of other operations followed Diamond but none succeeded beyond a few shorts and none ignited an industry. By 1920, Hollywood dominated film production in the U.S., closing the door to the type of runaway production witnessed post-Katrina.
The data for these exchanges is sparse in part due to the lowly status of film among local archivists and collectors. Searching for traces of the film industry in vertical files and scrapbooks dedicated to theater, opera, and other legitimated arts has a been a bit like gold panning; the scraps are few and far between. The digitalization of historic newspapers and some trade magazines have been mines in comparison. I have collected 100s of pages about film production, producers, and their products from 1905 to 1925.
The best reward of this research so far has been the pleasant reactions of most New Orleanians when I tell them there used to be a film studio on Bayou St. John. Locals love their urban history. I’m proud to add to the collective knowledge of a local industry pre-Hollywood South. In the next stage of this research, I plan to post as much of my archival data as possible on a cultural history website MediaNOLA.org. Through it perhaps I can reach someone who knows something about early film making history in New Orleans, or even was part of it.