POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 16, 2013
NEW ORLEANS » "If I had a dollar every time they asked me for the next Honey Boo Boo Child," said James Bearb, a Louisiana native and the president of Hollywood South Casting, "I swear I would be the next millionaire."
On a recent weekend afternoon, Bearb's offices were filled with children ages 4 to 14 interested in appearing on an unspecified "network reality" TV program. There were veteran stage children with professional head shots and children whose mothers had taken their pictures, children from up the street and over the state line, a 7-year-old who already had an agent and the 4-year-old twins who were spotted by one of Bearb's colleagues while they were having their matching red mohawks waxed.
"It's right in our backyard,' said Sharon Massa, who had brought her 8-year-old son, Evan. "How could you resist?"
Such is life in the Louisiana reality TV boom, which began in earnest in 2010 with the record-setting premiere of "Swamp People" on the History Channel and has apparently not diminished. In April, "Duck Dynasty," about a close-knit family and their duck-call business in northern Louisiana, set a ratings record for A&E with 10 million viewers. "The Governor's Wife," about the 85-year-old former Louisiana governor (and onetime federal prisoner) Edwin Edwards and his 34-year-old wife, Trina, is scheduled to begin airing this summer.
In the past few years, there have been shows about Louisiana alligator trappers, exterminators, sheriffs, prisoners, brides, shrimpers, nutria hunters, mixed martial arts fighters, garbage collectors, "bad girls," overnight millionaires, run-of-the-mill rednecks and pawnshop owners (about whom there are multiple shows). There are more shows on the way, prompting the question: How many interesting people here are left?
"There's more material to be found in Louisiana; it's just going to be harder to find," said David McKillop, the executive vice president for programming at A&E, who was involved in the creation of both "Swamp People" and "Duck Dynasty."
The Louisiana film and television industry has grown enormously since a generous tax credit program was set up in 2002, hence the nickname Hollywood South. Reality TV makes up a tiny fraction of that business — less than 1 percent, said Chris Stelly, the executive director of the Louisiana Office of Entertainment Industry Development — but has a big cultural footprint. Few would know that the sci-fi blockbuster "Oblivion" was shot here; "Cajun Pawn Stars" could have been shot nowhere else.
The tax credits are certainly a big part of why the state seems to attract so many shows, people in the industry said, and there is quite a bit of simply following what has already worked. But there is also general agreement that Louisiana is just more interesting than other places, with an ideal mix of Deep South exotica and regular folk accessibility. And Louisianans like to talk.
"It's like a two-dog race between Louisiana and Alaska," said Brent Montgomery, the owner of Leftfield Pictures, which produces "Cajun Pawn Stars," "Swamp'd!" and many other shows. "When you're in Louisiana," he said, "it's like every single person there is employed by the state to tell you how great the state is."
Despite the risks of overexposure and a growing skepticism on the part of some Louisianans about their portrayal, Montgomery and others say there is more here waiting to be found.
"I always remind my team: Michelangelo claimed he didn't carve those statues," McKillop said. "It was naturally there and he just released David from the block of marble or granite or whatever he carved it out of."
To find the next David, casting agents scour the landscape, cold calls are made to people with promisingly colorful occupations, producers host pig roasts to get to know potential subjects and local contacts are pressed to recall particularly engaging characters they might have come across or who were rejected from other reality shows. In some cases colorful characters and the colorful situations or jobs are discreetly matched up by the producer themselves, several people in the industry said, though nobody wanted to say so publicly.
The prerequisite, in any case, is colorful.
"‘Bigger than life' — that expression kept coming back," said Charles Larroque, a filmmaker in Lafayette who has done some work in the reality business.
"Me, bigger than life?" asked his friend Gerard Dupuy, who is known for playing the fiddle while dancing on a stump and prefers to speak in French. "That is un gros compliment." Dupuy showed up on "Cajun Pawn Stars."
Larroque has included Dupuy in his own show, which he is trying to sell: "Dinner and a Ghost," which follows the shrewd approach of combining genres, in this case the paranormal and the culinary.
For Larroque, the show is about portraying deeper aspects of culture than the superficial gloss on much reality TV.
"Everyone talks about the Cajun mystique and the exoticness of Cajun and Creole cultures," he said. "But it's ‘Let's just go blithely along and be entertained.' I want to go beyond that."
Others are happy with the entertainment.
"My first angle was hot country girls who like to do masculine things," said Shaun Sanghani, a business-savvy 32-year-old who runs a production company called SSS Entertainment out of the lobby of a hotel in Alexandria, La. Sanghani, who created "The Governor's Wife" and is producing it with Leftfield Pictures, is one of a growing number of local producers who find shows here and bring them to the bigger companies in Los Angeles or New York.
That first angle led to "Girls, Guns and Gators," about a 25-year-old woman who helps run a giant sporting goods store in north Louisiana. Since then he has created a show called "Stylin' Da Swamp," about a hair salon franchise and another that is a sort of "Jersey Shore"-on-the-Mississippi about young partyers in the area of New Orleans called the West Bank (he sold the show to a network and even shot eight episodes of "Girls, Guns and Gators," but neither was broadcast).
A year before "Swamp People" aired, Sanghani said, he was told about the "Duck Dynasty" family but he figured he could never sell anything like that.
"And back then, I couldn't have," he said with some regret.
Even Sanghani believes that Louisiana will reach a saturation point someday soon, and that the appetite for reality TV here will drop off.
There are still some, like Gerard Sellers, a veteran location scout for feature films, who cannot understand why it became so big in the first place. Sellers has been alligator hunting many times and even helped make a documentary about it, years before "Swamp People." He thinks of it as a largely tedious exercise of checking traps.
"I mean it's dangerous at times," he said, "but only if you're drunk."
Recently, a friend in south Louisiana called him to talk about a new show in the works. The subject, his friend told him, was crawfish harvesting.
"Crawfish," Sellers said. "I don't have a clue how you would make that exciting."