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Location Wars: Who will dominate the US?

California has always been regarded as the film production capital of the world. But the last few years have seen a number of major productions decamp to other parts of North America.

The key reason for this has been the introduction of regional tax incentives, which have made US states like Louisiana, Georgia, New Mexico and New York attractive alternatives to California. There has also been a migration of work to the UK and Canada, both of which offer competitive tax breaks.

The extent of the shift has been meticulously documented over the last two years by FilmL.A. showing in their reports where the six major US studios and five of the best known independent studios have been taking their film production work.

FilmL.A.’s research showed that 2013 was a particularly bad year for California, with just 15 out of 103 surveyed movies shooting in the state. This was the same as Canada and less than Louisiana, which was the top of the pile with 18.

Luckily 2014’s figures showed a bounce back for the Golden State, when it hosted 22 movies out of 106. There was also a strong showing for New York which welcomed no fewer than 13 productions. Georgia was fairly stable (10) but Louisiana was significantly down, with just 5 productions recorded for the year. Canada, at 12, was possibly a victim of California’s return to form while Massachusetts saw its share drop from five to just three films.

The big question then is - what happens next? Is California’s strong showing in 2014 a blip? And how is the rest of the US market likely to carve up the spoils in the near future?

Until July 2015, California offered a total of $100m worth of tax credits to film and TV projects on a lottery basis. However, only films with a budget of less than $75m were eligible to apply. As a result, virtually all blockbuster productions left the state in search of more attractive tax regimes (with the exception of those films whose directors had sufficient clout to demand that they be shot in California).

Recognising it had a problem, California changed its tax rebate regime in July so that big budget films are now eligible. It also increased the size of its tax rebate fund to $330m. These changes have come too late to impact California’s performance in 2015, but there is no question films will start to come back – with an impact on the statistics from 2016/2017.

When this happens, presumably some other production hubs will suffer. But FilmL.A. doesn’t take a particular view on whether this will be a shared pain – or whether one of the major hubs will bare the brunt. Its overall assessment is that “Canada, New York, Georgia, Louisiana, and the UK are California’s primary competitors for the foreseeable future. While these jurisdictions may trade yearly rank positions for total project count, budget value and production spending, there are no jurisdictions poised to dethrone them.”

One factor that may change the market’s dynamics is if one of these states drops its tax incentives reasoning that it can’t compete with the major players. New York is unlikely to do so because it is reckoned to benefit most from film induced tourism. California won’t because it is trying to win back work from rivals, and Georgia is seemingly happy with its regime, having won projects such as The Hunger Games and Ant-Man.

In terms of other states that may become bigger threats, the most obvious is New Mexico, which recently extended its tax credit programme in ways that will benefit TV producers and independent filmmakers.

Overall then, it looks like California is set to reassert its dominance, though it may need to take further measures to reverse the trend of VFX work going to Canada and the UK.