The snarky, suspicious, angry New Orleans has finally shown itself to David Simon. After the producers of Treme wrote a letter in support of preservation of houses slated for demolition, they found themselves abandoned and attacked (PDF) by the parties involved, then they were treated to a roll in the sewer that is the nola.com comments section. This afternoon, Simon responded to the treatment:
David Simon, April 15, 2011 at 2:51 p.m.
I know this a futile gesture. Just as trying to get responsible and accurate coverage of what actually happened with this issue has been futile. But I will have at it one time, just to establish an accurate record.
1) FALSEHOOD NUMBER ONE: The campaign to save those rowhouses originated with Treme and was motivated by Treme. No, we were approached directly by preservationists who told us that the Derbigny houses were salvageable and that they wished — if the mayor could be convinced — to attempt to put together a proposal to do exactly that. They asked us to write a letter in support. We did so, knowing that by venturing our support, it was entirely possible — if a plan came together and if sufficient support for it were found in the community, that Treme and HBO might be obliged to make such a housing initiative part of our sponsored charities.
2) FALSEHOOD NUMBER TWO: We have any desire to have those properties maintained as blight. This is amazingly absurd on its face. First, those particular houses HAVE NEVER been used as a location for any scene of Treme. The block has never been filmed and there were no plans to film in that block. Should our story arcs require blighted, post-Katrina properties to be depicted, my God, there are 50,000 abandoned properties in New Orleans. Indeed, that is the mayor’s overall concern and those figures are cited in the coverage of the issue. If New Orleans manages to restore or destroy 90 percent of those properties in the next two or three years — a practical impossibility — we would still be able to film a post-Katrina narrative on location. Get over the braindead notion that we hoped to maintain these properties as vacant derelicts or that they had any value as such to anyone involved in this production.
The houses were featured in the first season billboards and posters for the drama. By definition, such advertisements change each season, to suggest new themes and narratives. Having been used in the first season, there is no possibility that we were returning to that location for any imagery whatsoever. Other than our generalized sentiment that they were the houses featured in the first season poster and that they are reflective of local architecture that is so threatened by such widespread damage and disrepair, the Derbigny houses have zero value to us. The preservationists came to us and said they thought a restoration of those houses could be a worthy and symbolic image of renewal. We said, okay, if you think so, and agreed to support their appeal to the mayor in the hope that a few units of affordable housing is a better outcome than a vacant lot.
3) FALSEHOOD NUMBER THREE:
Because our initial appeal to the mayor made no specific mention of Treme’s willingness to engage its own resources should a campaign to save those houses find favor with the mayor, with preservationists and with the Central City community, we were therefore not putting our “money where our mouth was” as one city so graciously put it. And now, by this argument, we are changing facts to fit the story.
Some history: In it’s five seasons in Baltimore, The Wire quietly left behind a $750,000 fund for the city’s rec and parks foundation, a $100,000 account for the most active food bank in West Baltimore and dedicated treatment beds at a residential rehab facility in South Baltimore. The show partnered with city schools to provide internships in film production for students, among other programming. After only one and a half seasons in New Orleans, we have managed to raise or contribute close to $250,000 for various non-profits. Adding the fact that HBO provided $60,000 to stage two key fundraising events so that dollar-one went directly to the sponsored charities, the amount of money involved is $300,000, so far.
Our willingness to engage with non-profits and undertake charitable efforts has been constant since production began last year. Those cynical enough to question such have to argue past the cash already raised and delivered first, and past what folks in the New Orleans non-profit community already know as fact.
The real reason our initial appeal to the mayor does not commit funds is basic and obvious to anyone who understands the actual real-world dynamic of such issues:
We are part of a large, out-of-state corporate entity that is perceived, obviously enough, as a cash cow. If from jump, we declare a unilateral commitment to the restoration of those properties, and stamp our name on the initiative, other contributors and donors — as well as the willingness of city officials to achieve the goals of the project in an efficient, frugal fashion — suddenly begin to evaporate. Everyone looks only to the cow. But if non-profits or city officials take the initiative, and if we enter the process as one component under that umbrella, other funding sources do not walk sideways from the project. More obviously, with a non-profit at the helm, property owners do not immediately jack up the price of real estate, as they would be quick to do with us, assuming HBO and Time Warner to be deeply pocketed. Contractors do not double the price per square foot thinking they are dealing with a for-profit business that has vast resources. Instead, the dollars go further and it becomes possible to build affordable housing for close to the amount it might actually cost to do such a thing. Under the umbrella of a non-profit, companies like this one can contribute and fundraise knowing that the money is actually going to the project rather than into the pockets of speculators. We wrote to the mayor privately, expecting that if the idea found his favor, as well as community support, it was likely that the effort would join other sponsored charities, such as the Musicians Clinic and Roots of Music, as one of our sponsored non-profits. If the plan comes together, we would ante up our share. But there needs to be a plan and, unless wasting money, bleeding contributors and paying out speculators is the actual purpose, a non-profit needs to be at the center of that plan. This thing never got even close to that point. It was seemingly never considered.
4) RIDICULOUS MISCONCEPTION NUMBER ONE:
That any work at all with local non-profits is a necessary or required function of HBO or any film company, or that Treme has millions of dollars or even thousands of dollars laying about beyond the actual costs of creating the television drama.
Our budget pays to create ten hours of programming and it is determined by HBO and Time Warner. Save for those instances in which we have been specifically permitted to spend beyond that amount for our work with non-profits — HBO’s underwriting of the charity events that raised $170,000 for our primary charities, for example — there is no pile of hoarded extra money, at least not here in New Orleans. What it costs to make the film is what we have. That said, production money is being spent daily in New Orleans for locations, for equipment, material, labor and talent. In the first two seasons, for example, about $2 million in music licensing money was paid for the rights to songs by New Orleans artists, alone. Such expenditures — with or without any charity component — are the crux of the real economic relationship between a film company and the community in which it works. It is a straight-up transaction. We come here to shoot a movie. We pay a variety of local vendors, government fees and individuals to do it. And for virtually every other movie shot in Louisiana, that is it — end of story. No charitable work is expected by local authorities and little occurs. With Treme as with The Wire, the producers decided that because the subject matter deals with actual urban dynamics, it would be worthwhile if we could figure out ways to leverage the presence of the production to raise funds and awareness for charities and non-profits. It is often fun to do so. And considering that the film industry is indeed an industry for profit like any other, it often feels pleasantly subversive to do so. But it is lagniappe. It is not our primary purpose and certainly no responsibility.
We weren’t looking for any extra credit or kudos engaging in civic giving and fundraising. Donations to a variety of other local non-profits often proceed on an anonymous basis. What publicity we pursue is simply to raise awareness of specific events, to maximize fundraising for charity, and to acknowledge that HBO, when they underwrite such events, is a corporate sponsor. We’re not running for anything. We’re not looking for any additional concessions or permissions or anything at all in return.
It would be nice if in trying to do what extra we can manage, we might at the least be left alone by defensive, image-conscious politicians; by advocates who seek our help and then disappear, using us as their stalking horse when the cause becomes controversial; by reporters offering up a stilted, poorly reported account of our role, actions and intentions; and lastly, by a general public willing to freely opine as to our status as outside agitators, Hollywood dilettantes, liars and greedheads. Failing that much, we’ll go back to doing what every other film project here does: shooting our movie and eschewing any other civic connections. If we are what so many people were so quick to say we were yesterday, we can surely do less work and spend less money to be so.
For years now, one of the fascinating questions for me is how progress in a city as vibrant and as essential as New Orleans always comes so slowly, or not at all. Why is it that consortiums and consensus-building and cooperation are all so elusive? Well, after being tossed between the mayor, preservationists, reporters and the generalized and absurd resentments and suspicions of many ordinary New Orleanians yesterday, I am beginning to see more of the light.