Culver City is one of the world’s more recognizable non-places. It’s surrounded by L.A., but has its own mayor; the population, technically, hovers below 40,000. It’s been a hotbed for Hollywood film production ever since the ’20s, when Hal Roach and MGM built studios there. “Gone With The Wind”‘s old South was located there, as was Tarzan’s jungle; later, it was Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.
Culver Studios itself — a big mansion building used in “Gone With The Wind”‘s opening credits — is still standing, but, like the rest of California’s film industry, it’s in trouble. NPR reports that Studios head James Cella is putting the mansion up for lease, but it may be too late — to stay afloat for now, he’s had to sell all 91,000 props. And really, how can he hold onto productions when there are 30% tax breaks to be had for shooting in Connecticut and 42% in Detroit?
Sure, there’s nostalgia for a Hollywood system whose breakdown has been going on since the ’60s, but there’s more to it. “Most of the really great talent behind the talent,” Cella laments, “the grips and carpenters, they’re all leaving.” Some veteran actors are sounding the alarm: Alfre Woodard, for one, although she has an unfortunate way of putting it: “They’ll bring two or three people from L.A., you get shipped off to Canada, and then they hire all locals, when that whole call sheet would be filled with your colleagues in L.A. who have moved here, who have trained, who came to the place you come to make movies and television. The crews are lovely people, and I’m not putting them down at all, but the soul of making film does not lie in the hinterlands. […T]he quality has gone down. You can tell you’re not where you’re supposed to be. You can tell the location is fake.” The assumption that LA is a “real” location and Canada somehow a “fake” one is curious, but you can see where she’s coming from.
Still, Woodard’s complaint seems beside the point when most of the interesting American movies of this decade come, geographically, from some place that isn’t L.A. The recent strength of small and mid-level semi-independent American film is a tribute to the availability to film crews everywhere. These days, there are centralized tech communities all over the country, and I can’t help but think film is richer for it. The time for seeing those same office buildings, diners and streets over and over again, charming as it was, has passed.