Kutcher, 45, started his Los Angeles company in 1996. Over the years, he occasionally won studio contracts to work a New Orleans film (Interview with a Vampire was his first). But because there weren't many experienced local workers, Kutcher had to bring in California welders or carpenters familiar with showbiz tricks--at great cost. After 2002, Kutcher began to notice more and more local crew with sophisticated knowledge. The number of New Orleanians working as full-time film crew rose 400 percent between 2006 and 2011. Finally, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter did the trick. Kutcher constructed all the effects he needed for that picture using only Louisianans and created 18 jobs in the process. "Everybody was a hired local," he says. That's when he decided to move. He packed Spectrum FX into seven trailers and 14 shipping containers, rented a warehouse just outside the city, and started over.
In his office, a trailer outside the building, Kutcher begins to explain why it's so much easier to make a movie here than in Los Angeles. The Apes script is sitting on his desk. I restrain a sci-fi fanboy's urge not to slip it into my messenger bag while he looks up a datapoint on his computer. He has seven permanent staff, he says, and can scale up quickly to as many as 70, all with health insurance, for a big film. "If you're a resident, it takes you 30 days to qualify for the local union," he says, contrasting that with 18 months in California. Louisiana is a right-to-work state, which also helps keep salaries comparatively low.
Kutcher's base rate for a union position is $22/hour, about half the rate in Los Angeles, but the figure rises quickly for people practicing certain specialties. "When I first started at Spectrum FX, a lot of my work involved cleaning machinery and sweeping floors," says Justin Johnson, 27, who grew up in a suburb on the west bank of the Mississippi. "Over time I learned...various trades, including carpentry, fabrication, plumbing, and electrical work. I knew that learning these trades would translate well to other work within and outside the film industry."
The film sector isn't just creating local jobs; it's also luring workers from Hollywood, including actors. Laura Cayouette spent 18 years acting opposite Shirley MacLaine, Bill Paxton, Will Smith, Juliette Lewis, and Miranda Richardson. But she decided it was worth "taking a chance" on New Orleans, as she put it, because "the highest value here is community." She knew it would mean smaller parts, and it did. But when Django Unchained decided to film here, she landed a role alongside Leonardo DiCaprio as the sister of the film's villain. "There's better food, nobody cares what you drive, and it's cheaper to live," says Cayouette, of the advantages that come with being based in New Orleans. Plus, decentralization in the film business — thanks to personal computing, post-production work can be done anywhere, and is increasingly being done in New Orleans — means that big projects needn't originate in Hollywood. "Beasts of the Southern Wild proved that for the first time in history of the Academy, a film can be selected for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actress with no studio, no money, no distribution to speak of."