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We Used to Be in Pictures 

San Francisco's once-hot film industry is in a slump; will it come back?

Wednesday, Oct 20 1999
Debbie Brubaker, a line producer for film and video, has worked in the Bay Area's film production industry for the last 15 years, but this has been a tough year for her: In 1998 she worked on three feature films. So far this year there have been zero. She has just scored a job to scout locations in Healdsburg for a Turner Broadcasting TV show, which will provide her with a maximum of three to four days work. Normally, her job entails managing a production's budget, equipment, crew, and talent, but she's happy for this work; after it ends, she says ruefully, "I will join the ranks of the ungainfully unemployed."

Though Brubaker, a single mother, has handled her money prudently, with enough socked away to ride out a five-month dry spell, she rattles off the names of several colleagues who have hit the breaking point and recently quit the business.

From 1995 to 1997, 21 feature films were shot in San Francisco; but so far this year, Bicentennial Man (with Robin Williams) and Woman on Top, directed by Fiona Torres, are the only films to have been shot locally. "If you call anyone, they'll tell you this is the worst year they've ever had. I've only had one feature since last summer," says Gail Stempler, a location scout, who echoes the experience of Brubaker and many others interviewed for this article.

Since the 1930s, the San Francisco area has been a strong draw for movie crews doing location shooting -- more than 100 feature films have been shot in and around the city. Sean Penn, Peter Coyote, Barry Levinson, Francis Ford Coppola, Robin Williams, Chris Columbus, Danny Glover, and Sharon Stone are just a few of the film luminaries who are based here and whose presence has helped entice Hollywood production northward. Williams, who starred in Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come, and Flubber -- all of which were shot here -- has functioned as a one-man magnet for production, and is credited with keeping many people employed.

And the film industry not only supplies prestige and glamour, it supports ancillary businesses and pumps money into the economy: $50 million a year for San Francisco alone. But what was a booming business three years ago has cooled considerably. Jimmer Fisk, director of marketing and sales at Cine Rent West, which leases camera equipment, is feeling the pinch.

"Business is down 30 percent from three years ago," says Fisk. "People are fighting for the work nowadays as far as the rental houses go. We're all bidding on the same jobs and we're all stealing each other's clients away. It's standard practice now."

Across the film industry and despite a record-breaking box office take this summer, there is a downward trend in Hollywood film production. According to Jack Kyser, an economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., 637 features were initiated in L.A. County in 1997, but the number decreased to 510 last year. He estimates that this year the figure will drop to 480.

The depression in the Bay Area, however, appears to be caused by a confluence of factors. Many film professionals claim that one of the most important is the ineffectiveness of the San Francisco Film and Video Arts Commission, which has been in a state of flux since the death in November of its former executive director, Robin Eickman. Eickman had been with the commission since its inception in 1980 and was a respected figure here who had forged relationships with police, neighborhoods, and players in the film industry.

"They have had no proactive director since Robin died," says Gail Silva, director of the Film Arts Foundation, a service and funding organization for filmmakers. "It's so competitive and there are so many cities vying for the lucrative film business that you have to really be out there all the time."

Mayor Brown appointed P.J. Johnston to the director's post in April. But Johnston promptly went on leave in order to manage Brown's re-election campaign in July; he'll be absent until January. Johnston had been writing film reviews for the San Jose Mercury News when he was tapped for the job, and had also acted as a trouble-shooter at Muni before taking the commission job. If Brown is re-elected, Johnston says he could be back at the commission by early November. If Brown loses, the commission could be without a director for some time. Because Johnston is a political appointee and Brown's campaign manager, obviously a new mayor would fire Johnston, and he knows it.

Johnston says he's aware of the frustrations of those who work in the film industry. "I know the film community wants a more proactive stance from City Hall, and I absolutely intend to work on that," he says. "We're not a commercial business. We're a jumping-off point for people working in San Francisco. If we can help cultivate or facilitate this industry and get the word out to L.A. and other cities that San Francisco is a place you can do production from start to finish, I'd like to use my office as a bully pulpit for that."

But according to Cine Rent West's Fisk, the commission has lately been lax in forwarding business to local companies. "People call the commission about where to rent gear and they don't get any information that would point them in the right direction," he says.

Further problems faced by the local industry are increased congestion and rising costs in San Francisco. Jonathan Shedd, who's worked as a location manager for feature films and commercials for the last 20 years, says film crews who used to come to the city to shoot because it presented a less crowded alternative to the gridlock of downtown L.A. are no longer doing so.

"San Francisco is, without question, becoming more difficult to film in," says Shedd. "It's a much denser place than it was five years ago and that's changed people's perception of us. It's not as easy to get the shots you need. The [film] commission is very forthcoming about giving you a permit, but the bottom line is that if you get out there and physically can't see an opening in the traffic to do what you need to do, what's the point?" He says that in several recent instances, production staffs have been forced out of San Francisco because of a shortage of hotel rooms and have had to find accommodations in Marin.

Production crews who do shoot here are met with less hospitality than they once were, according to Stefanie Pleet, who served as location manager for Jade, The Rock, Metro, and The Game. She says that because studios often opt to use the same desirable, photogenic locations, neighborhood residents and city merchants are burned out, weary of film vehicles clogging the streets and taking up precious parking spaces. "They are really over the glamour and don't buy the line that these movies are going to promote tourism."

Local producers also charge that the commission isn't doing enough to support the area's independent filmmakers, whose award-winning work consistently shows up at major film festivals. They say that rather than nurture and promote the talents of the local community, the commission places a disproportionate emphasis on big-budget Hollywood films. "People underestimate the power of the independents," says Debbie Brubaker. "I believe that the people who live here and make movies here shouldn't have to pay for permits, or it should be made really cheap for them."

Still, Carole Isaacs, deputy director of the S.F. Film Commission, points out that by some measures the industry isn't doing all that badly: The city took in more money for filming permit fees this year than it did last. "People don't realize that the features are just the icing on the cake," she says. "In fact, there's a tremendous commercial business here. Practically every weekend the Financial District is wall-to-wall with filming vehicles." She says one Nike commercial "spent a million in four days in January."

Commercial production is definitely a segment of the local industry that doesn't appear to be as hard hit by the slowdown. "The past few weeks we've had 15 jobs," says Yvette Briggs, an associate at Nancy Hayes Casting in San Francisco. "It has been insanely busy. We've actually had to turn jobs down at this office, which is something I don't think we've ever had to do before -- and I've been here for six years."

While industry people throughout the Bay Area are anxious for their prospects to improve, they remain philosophical about the vagaries of the business. "It's always been a steady build, so when it peaked three or four years ago it was the biggest peak ever," says Pleet. "[The slowdown] is temporary and it's natural, because cities are fashionable to the film industry just like everything is fashionable in the industry. I don't feel that the big guys aren't coming here anymore. It's just that San Francisco isn't hot right now. But in a minute, it could be again."

And Brubaker, who is on hold until a number of indie projects solidify their financing, echoes the sentiment of many waiting out the current downturn. "It's been slow since January," she says. "But looking ahead, it could get crazy. I love to do what I do. But I'd like to do more of it."

About The Author

Sura Wood


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