EXCLUSIVE: Interview with outgoing New Orleans film commissioner Jennifer Day

by Danielle Nelson on June 10, 2010

Questions and interview by Danielle Nelson of the New Orleans Video Access Center (www.novacvideo.org)
Photography by Zack Delaune

Q: Talk a little bit about where you’re from and how you wound up here.
A: I’m a mid-west girl by birth, but a southern girl at heart. I grew up in Peoria, Illinois and received my bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University.  After that, I lived in Chicago for three years and then moved to New Orleans in 2004- but my connection to the city began as a little girl. My aunt lived in Gonzales, Louisiana for a few years and during that time my family first brought me to visit New Orleans.  I was completely enchanted: the beads, the Mardi Gras masks, the cemeteries… and let’s not forget the beignets!  New Orleans captured my imagination and still does to this day. I hadn’t been back in over ten years but after a girls’ weekend for Jazzfest in 2002 I fell in love all over again. The entire trip my intuition was telling me to move to New Orleans, so I tied up loose ends in Chicago and headed south. So really, what brought me here was a desire to live among the history and characters of one of the most interesting, creative cities of the world.

Q: Tell me how you became the film commissioner. Was it a position you aspired to?
A: I definitely did not imagine I would ever be involved with the film industry. I’m a sociologist by training (which is the study of people- and actually became very handy!). Really, until about a month before I was offered the position, I didn’t know that ‘film commissioner’ was a career that even existed. I began my work with the New Orleans city government in 2006 when I was awarded a Mayoral Fellowship in the Office of Economic Development in the Arts and Entertainment division. I was finishing up my fellowship in early 2007 when the former director, Stephanie Durant, stepped down from public service and I was in the right place at the right time. Stephanie saw my skill set and thought it would be a good match for the position.

Q: Having worked with you in the past I can say, and I think anyone who has worked with you would agree, that Stephanie’s intuition was right- you were perfect for the position.  You made the job seem effortless.  However, I can only imagine the amount of stress that comes with a title like ‘film commissioner.’  What was the most challenging part of the job?
A: Some of the most challenging aspects were producing a high volume of quality services with limited resources, and balancing production activity with quality of life for the community. It’s an emotionally draining job. You have to be able to multi-task like crazy, work with so many different personalities and have a thick skin. In that position, you’re being pulled in so many directions. Producers want location photographs, street closures, crew lists, to blow up a house- seriously. Citizens want jobs or to lodge a complaint, local businesses want to connect with film industry opportunities. And you’re doing all of these duties simultaneously throughout the day. It’s a strange place to be- trying to produce results to private sector expectations situated within the bureaucracy of a city government. To be successful- you make things happen, solve the problem to the best of your ability and then move on to the next request.

Q: With any job there are challenges- like producers who want to blow up a house- and then, hopefully there are the rewarding or redeeming moments that make the rough times worth it.  What were some of your proudest moments on the job?
A: In my three years as director I touched 71 major projects for Greater New Orleans with an estimated Louisiana spend of $600 million dollars. I facilitated positive press post-Katrina in some of the most influential publications in the country such as The New York Times, USA Today and the Associated Press.  I LOVED getting crew and vendor lists after a project wrapped. Some people like chocolate when they’re feeling down- I liked crew lists. It was black and white proof that this industry creates tangible, cold hard cash for the community.  Another really rewarding part of my job was slowing down from time to time make an effort to mentor. Sometimes it was a young person with an exceptional spirit and work ethic, or a neighboring parish looking for tips on how to better market themselves. Those type of one-on-one interactions helped to remind me why I was working so hard. I also loved the creative side of the job. Sometimes that got lost in the mix but my toolkit included 300 years worth of amazing architecture. Each script was like a puzzle waiting to be brought to life.

Q: What part of your job has been the hardest to give up?
A: As much as it sometimes frustrated me, I was always proud to work for the city. I felt like we were combating the “City Hall” stereotype. I worked with extremely dedicated, hard-working individuals. From the parking meter division to the parks department, each agency took on tons of extra work to make this industry a success.  I’ll miss being a part of that effort.

Q: But you’re not slowing down, or leaving New Orleans.  You’re part of another mass effort- marketing the city full-time.  Tell me about your new job.
A: I am now the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. It’s just what the doctor ordered. I’m using so much of what I learned in the film office, but I’m also out of my comfort zone- learning new skills and a new industry. My new position will revolve around cultivating positive media coverage to promote the city covering topics ranging from the culinary arts to architecture.

Q: A lot people who work in the film industry are curious about your choice to switch careers.  Were you asked to stay on with the new mayoral administration?
A: Yes, I was retained through the transition. And I look back at my work in city hall with warm sentiments. But it had been a rigorous three years. I felt I’d made contributions to the office and I was ready for new challenges.

Q: Based on your experience, what are some areas New Orleans, specifically Mayor Landrieu’s administration, could improve upon in terms of film development and recruitment?
A: The film office needs investment. Three record breaking years of production and we’re on pace to break the record yet again. That office is the go-to for producers and the community alike. People were often amazed at the range of services we provided with such a small staff: location scouting, maintaining the website, providing permitting assistance, career and small business counseling, facilitating community relations. And we’re not talking about servicing a few films a year- my office facilitated, on average, 20 major productions a year- not to mention the smaller earned media projects that work in the city on a weekly basis. We worked with a project from start to finish- and it takes a tremendous amount of time and attention to do that correctly. I’d like to see an investment in staff as well as operating budget.

Access to city streets is one of the most valuable resources we can offer to the film industry. I’ve recommended that Traffic Engineering, the office that permits street access, also see investment. In the future I’d like to see a computerized permitting system and an additional Traffic Engineer specifically dedicated to film.

Independent filmmaking and creative development also need more attention. A desire to see more of that was the driving force behind the Creative Development Educational Series my office launched earlier this year. We have creative people here in New Orleans: writers, filmmakers and the capital is here. So, what’s the missing link?  Education and mentoring to support the art of producing and share the theory behind the business side of the industry. I know it’s an ambitious goal- to set one’s sights on an increase in homegrown productions, especially during economic times such as these. But quality technology continues to become more accessible and we have the talent. This combined with the fact that distribution options such as the web mean more avenues than ever for independent projects.

Q: While we’re all so proud of the work that has come out of your office in the last three years, there’s a lot of hard work still to be done. Talk about what the new office will look like in terms of personnel now that you’re gone.
A: Katie Gunnell and Carroll Morton will continue to provide film office services. We worked as a very close team and they are as prepared as one can be to do that crazy job!

Q: We can only assume at some point in the near future, the Landrieu administration will name a new film commissioner.  What advice do you have for the next person who holds your job?
A: Drink lots of coffee. Be tough. Be kind. Know that it’s all worth it- and if a producer wants to recreate the running of the bulls in the French Quarter, even though the Quarter looks uncannily like Pamplona, politely decline.

Q: Since you announced that you were leaving your post, you’ve made it a point to express that you’re staying in New Orleans.  Why?
A: I am so devoted to New Orleans. I love living here- the art, the dancing, the people. Many asked me if I was going to move to Los Angeles to work in the industry after I left the office. No way. Film was not at the core of my work- the city was. My opportunity and heart are here.