Follow the Signs

OPA Signs & Graphics has enjoyed a Hollywood South boost.
Kimberley Singletary
One of OPA’s signs on set for “Jurassic World.”

Back in May, I talked about how one local business, Ricca’s Architectural Sales, has been affected by the film industry. Ricca’s credited the industry with sustaining the company during the post-Katrina downturn before going on to make up about 40 percent of the family business’ clientele.

As the fate of Hollywood South remains in question, I’d like to take this month to highlight another local name that also unexpectedly found itself in the movie business — OPA Signs & Graphics.

Creators of everything from small, ubiquitous signage like “In Case of Fire Use Stairs,” to the gigantic sign welcoming visitors to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, OPA was introduced to a new challenge in late 2007 when a made-for-TV movie from TNT called “The Librarian III: The Curse of the Judas Chalice” starring Noah Wyle came calling.

“It was like a lower budget version of ‘National Treasure,’” explains Mark Backus, sales and design with OPA Signs & Graphics. “They wanted us to create this decoder ring for them that would be used to open a treasure box. We’d never made a movie prop before but we dropped what we were doing to work with them and they were really happy with our work.”

Backus says the small film was the company’s gateway into a whole new market.

“People think of the film industry as really transient, but while one film will end and leave, the production company will bring in another and if they like the work you’ve done, they’ll keep you working,” he says. “Word really gets around.”

After five or six years in film circles, OPA made a jump into the major Hollywood pictures with its work on “Ender’s Game” — a sci-fi film starring Harrison Ford with a $110 million-plus budget.

“We spent 18-hour days making black monitor film prints — it was a lot of spaceship scenes,” Backus says. “We also made Harrison Ford’s desk. That was probably the most challenging part of the project.”

About that time, demand was reaching the point that OPA opened a second location inside Big Easy Studios to provide graphic work in-house.

Next came 2014’s $235 million “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

“That one was supposed to take place in San Francisco but the city wouldn’t let the production close down Market Street so they came here and Landrieu let them have the downtown intersection of Common and University,” Backus says. “In about a month we recreated an overgrown Market Street with a few hundred yards of businesses and signage. We worked with that film for about six months.”

The year 2014 was the biggest in film for OPA, with work on both “Terminator Genisys” and “Jurassic World.”

“For Terminator, it was a lot of small pieces, including hundreds of computer servers for one of the scenes at the end of the movie,” he says. “But it still added up to about $75,000 in work.

“Jurassic World really represented the peak of the peak for us,” he continues, explaining that since the film took place inside a theme park, signage needs were heavy for the set —located in the parking lot of the old Six Flags theme park in New Orleans East. “That one film made up about 10 percent of our year.”

From 2011 to 2014, Backus estimates the film industry made up about 25 to 30 percent of the company’s sales. He says he was surprised at how quickly the phone stopped ringing right after the tax credit limit bill was passed last summer. “We were down about 25 percent last year and most of that was film industry loss,” he says.

Backus says the company has since been restructuring to focus more on bids for lucrative projects like schools, but he says he’s hearing positive talk within the industry.

“The word I’m getting is that Atlanta is becoming so inundated right now that people are arriving and there’s no room,” he says. “The feeling is that in about a year we’ll be back to 2010 levels of about 30 to 40 films a year. At the height we were doing about 60 to 70 so I think that’s going to coincide better with the $180 million cap.”

Kimberley Singletary is the managing editor of Biz New Orleans magazine. A 20-year Southern California veteran, she has been surrounded by the film industry for most of her life.