In real estate, “location” is the mantra behind being able to make a sale in a particular neighborhood or get a business off to a promising start due to the busy-ness of the street it’s on. At the California Film Commission‘s annual Locations Breakfast, held at West Hollywood’s London Hotel that mantra had been changed to say: any neighborhood or street you need can be found right here, in California. There’s no need to film anywhere else.
Film Commission executive director Amy Lemisch opened with an overview of how tax incentives have worked here in the very state that spawned the film biz, but then turned the morning over to a panel from HBO, talking about the upcoming production Hemingway and Gellhorn, recounting the turbulent romance of writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, during World War II. That production was set in various locales including China, Cuba, Spain and Finland – yet actually shot entirely in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Before the “how we did it” panel, Lemisch cited some numbers yielded by the current incentives. Since the creation of the Film and Television Tax Credit Program in 2009, 165 projects have qualified for those credits, resulting in $2.9 billion in production money being spent in state, and upwards of 30,000 crew (and 8,000 cast) being hired here.
However, without an extension, the program ends in 2013. Currently, state Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes has introduced a bill to run the program an additional five years. (He got it extended for another year, last session). In the state Senate, Ron Calderon has offered a similar bill.
Unsurprisingly, both Fuentes and Calderon hail from Southern California. Fuentes’ district is in the San Fernando Valley, and both are Democrats, to boot. While Democrats are generally perceived to be friendlier to “cultural funding” than Republicans, California’s current political and budgetary climate may confound some of those expectations.
Governor Jerry Brown, comes, of course, from a multi-generational Democratic family, and is making his second tour of the Governor’s office. However, he also faces fierce deficit budgets, already high state tax rates, and absolute intransigence from Republicans on raising taxes. But he’s also shown a willingness to cut things like health, welfare and school programs. According to a BusinessWeek article appearing the same day as the breakfast, he now faces an additional $2 billion dollar shortfall, in addition to the $9 billion current state deficit, which he’s counting on voters to help redress by agreeing to raise taxes at the ballot box. This November?
What if they don’t? Can the fund, which enjoyed support from Brown’s predecessor, who was, of course, a Republican with a SAG card, count on getting a half-decade extension?
It remains an open question, if not a looming one, as Lemisch referred to treading “a difficult road” in Sacramento.
But the HBO Hemingway panel that followed hoped those very roads get smoothed out, and stay that way. As mentioned, the production – represented at the breakfast by panelists Trish Hoffman, who executive produced, visual effects supervisor Chris Morley, and location manager Patrick Ranahan – found all the roads (and backdrops) it needed around the S.F. Bay Area. This was in part because San Francisco also has its own city-wide incentive program, as it seeks to lure filmmaking back in the post-Vertigo – or is that the post-Dirty Harry? – era. Additionally, the project’s director, Phillip Kaufman is a Bay Area resident, and given the film’s limited budget, not having to travel became a key consideration.
As Hoffman noted, productions with tight funds have to “chase rebates,” and yet attracting A-list talent to prestige projects is harder if those listers have to spend weeks or months in Bulgaria, say. And yet “San Francisco is an easy sell.” With a painless one-hour flight from L.A., and its “great restaurants,” which, Carnahan laughed, were especially appreciated by the director who’s already a fan of NorCal’s cuisine scene, the project was able to get Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman on board in the title roles.
But a lot of ingenuity had to be used to find locations, especially since, prior to this, Hoffman noted, “no one goes to San Francisco unless the film is set in San Francisco.”
The director, however, had filmed a lot of The Right Stuff there – which Carnahan had worked on as well. Now, though, Kaufman would be relying on digital effects, which he hadn’t used previously – in collaboration with Morley and Phil Tippett‘s East Bay-based VFX shop – to expand the range of usable locations, along with a lot of green screening. Thus, an abandoned Oakland train station became a hospital, where the production stayed for three months; thus the Livermore valley, south of Berkeley and Oakland, became Spain during the anti-fascist revolution, and buildings around the City itself filled in for China, Cuba, and more.
Kaufman was confident any place could be digitally enhanced, or doubled, prompting KCRW‘s Matt Holzman, panel moderator, to ask “so a director who hadn’t used visual effects was selling you on visual effects?”
“Yes,” Hoffman allowed, though really, she added, “it was more locations.”
And “more locations” was, of course, the theme for the morning. California is full of them, up and down the state, as the next day’s California Locations Tradeshow in Century City further emphasized. But whether the state is going to continue helping people take advantage of those locations remains an open question. One which still – despite the incentive program’s early successes – carries a political charge up and down the cash-strapped Golden State.