NASA defends deal with N.O. film studio

NASA defends deal with N.O. film studio

NASA is renting out space at the Michoud Assembly Center in New Orleans to Big Easy Studios, which has attracted major film productions. Meanwhile, Raleigh Studios Baton Rouge at the Celtic Media Centre sits largely empty, prompting complaints that the federal government is providing an unfair advantage to Big Easy.

NASA's rules state that any deal with an outside entity must serve the agency's mission and must not compete with the private sector. Patrick Mulhearn, director of studio operations at Raleigh Studios Baton Rouge, says the deal with Big Easy seems to violate both rules, although Robert Champion, deputy director at Michoud, says that's not the case.

The old space shuttle has been retired, so NASA is no longer building the shuttle's external tanks at Michoud. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are at work there on the next-generation spaceship, but they don't need as much room. Offsetting the cost of the additional space by renting to commercial tenants like Big Easy supports the agency's overall mission, Champion says.

As for the unfair competition argument, Champion says NASA is required to recover the full cost of the rented space. However, he says, the agency works with "state and local economic development agencies to vet our pricing to make sure we're not competing [with] or undercutting the local market." Neither BRAC nor LED reports having any discussions with NASA specifically about lease rates for a film studio.

"We've had many conversations with NASA officials about the need to offer more competitive lease rates at Michoud to better position the facility to attract advanced manufacturing projects," says LED Secretary Stephen Moret by email, adding that they've not discussed the movie business specifically, but that his understanding is that the facility charges about the same rates to all private-sector tenants.

Mulhearn obtained a copy of the agreement between NASA and Big Easy Studios through a Freedom of Information Act request, although all the financial information was blacked out. The lease rates are considered proprietary information.

"All I've been given is hearsay from producers who tell me that our rates are more expensive than theirs," he says. "The taxpayers didn't fund [Michoud] to make movies. … I know that the O'Connors never would have built this facility if they knew they were going to have to compete with NASA."

"On a per-square-foot basis, our prices are higher," contends Jerry Lathan, a partner with Big Easy.

Lathan says his operation doesn't compete with the state's other studios at all; instead, it vies for massive projects that otherwise wouldn't even consider Louisiana, but might end up in Melbourne, Australia, or Vancouver, Canada. For example, Ender's Game, a big-budget fantasy flick that was filmed at Big Easy, was set to film in London and Morocco before being lured to New Orleans at the last minute, he says.

"We got that movie from overseas," Lathan says. "Louisiana is better for it."

Big-budget productions have been shot at Celtic in the past, including Battleship, Breaking Dawn (parts one and two), and the forthcoming Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise. Rumor has it that the next Planet of the Apes movie may be filmed at Michoud, which of course Lathan did not confirm or deny.

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