Another summer of tentpoles lensed elsewhere

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If the summer movies now fading from the screen had collectively sent a postcard to the City of Angels, it would have read, "Having a great time, wish you were here."

Although more Hollywood films than usual opted for the equivalent of a stay-cation, choosing to film in and around Los Angeles, the majority of summer 2008's releases were not made here -- or even in California, for that matter. And because summer tentpoles tend to have budgets that range from $100 million-$200 million or more, that's a lot of money to spend out of town.

It's not a new trend, of course: Would-be summer blockbusters, with their "take audiences to places they've never seen before" ethos, tend to shoot all over, including such big filmic centers as London, Toronto and Berlin.

Other observations in evidence as the summer light dims:

1. Sony loves L.A.

Among the studios, Sony/Columbia shot the biggest majority of its movies in the world's movie capital. From the Will Smith starrer "Hancock" and "Step Brothers" to "Pineapple Express" and "The House Bunny," Los Angeles' highways, the Valley and Beverly Hills all got screen time.

Any particular reason for this trend? Some credit goes to Smith and producer Judd Apatow, who make it a point to shoot in town; both are family men and like to stay close to home when they can. Smith's next Columbia movie, "Seven Pounds," also shot here. Apatow's efforts, whether he directs or produces, have tended to be L.A.-centric.

It's also worth noting that with the exception of "Hancock," the Los Angeles-shot movies are comedies, which normally aren't location-specific and have smaller budgets. In those cases, the cost of moving a production to take advantage of film incentives doesn't necessarily justify the potential savings.

2. Not one Universal movie shot principally in Los Angeles.

"The Incredible Hulk" was filmed in Toronto, "Wanted" and "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" shot in Hungary, "Mamma Mia!" lensed in Greece, "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" went to China and "Death Race" landed in Montreal.

This was not done to hurt L.A. but to cut costs. Hungary offered big savings for the productions it hosted, as did the Canadian cities, though the locales north of the border became less attractive as the Canadian dollar gained on the American greenback. With "Mamma Mia!" the production was dutiful to the popular play, which is set in Greece.

Universal has not abandoned L.A., however: It is shooting "Land of the Lost" on its Universal City backlot, while "Funny People," Apatow's next directing gig, also will shoot here.

3. Directors have power.

Jon Favreau has a clause in his contract that ensures he directs movies in California. Thus, "Iron Man" shot all over L.A.; for the Afghanistan sequences, the production used Lone Pine, Calif., about four hours north.

Favreau has become a poster child for the "Keep Film in California" movement, and there are signs others are following suit. For example, Brad Silberling was a key player in keeping "Land of the Lost" in town.

4. At least one movie a year needs to destroy parts of Los Angeles.

Last year, "Transformers" saw its climactic giant robot fight destroy downtown, while "Live Free or Die Hard" shut down freeways so Bruce Willis could save the world while smashing 18-wheelers.

This summer, "Hancock" audiences watched Smith's drunk superhero smash buildings and tear up freeways. The freeway shoot required the coordination of lots of acronyms: LAX, LADOT, LAFD, FilmL.A., CHP and Caltrans, not to mention El Segundo and the state of California.

So what will 2009 bring?

Well, Disney's "Prince of Persia" is shooting in Morocco, while Fox's "Night at the Museum" sequel is shooting in Vancouver. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" recently wrapped in Australia.

Still, there are signs that productions are coming back: Columbia's "Angels and Demons" is packing the sets it constructed at Pinewood Studios in England and shipping them to Los Angeles, where the production is building a huge backlot in Inglewood.

The reason? The weak American dollar in the face of the British pound.
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