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Oakland: You ought to be in pictures!

by Corey Lyons
Montclarion (November 9, 1999)

There are times when Ami Zins' mind whirl like a washing machine.

And who could blame her?

As the lone paid staff member of the Oakland Film Commission, the affable 39-year-old woman is used to performing her daily tasks with a natural sense of urgency.

Since October 1998, when she was hired to become the commission's lone full time-temporary employee, Zins has worked virtually alone. She became permanent two months ago.

"When I first came into this job, it was like plunging into a very deep pool," says Zins, while sitting in her arty office on the third floor of the Dalziel Building at Frank Ogawa Plaza.

During on memorable afternoon, Zins found herself immersed in a handful of time-sensitive assignments: arranging the logistics of filming a bank commercial in West Oakland, trying to accommodate a production team's demands for improved lighting in a residential neighborhood, and negotiating with police and transit officials for a "Nash Bridges" shoot at 14th Street and Broadway.

Gasp.

"Also, we were in negotiation with PG&E to take down some power lines for one day," she says. "Film companies will pay to do that.

" In recent years, film company executives have started eyeing this diverse city of 380,000 souls, discovering reasons that may someday make Oakland a coveted and popular city in which to shoot.

The advantages here are distinquished ones: a temperate climate, reasonable filming expenses, an esteemed nearby studio, and airport with scores of flights to and from Los Angeles, a rich assortment of imagery, and a population among the most diverse in the nation.

"Also, I think Hollywood is finally getting more adventurous in going to other cities," says Zins, who has taught an acting and directing course at Laney College for the past seven years.

Since 1990, more than 30 feature films have shot some of their scenes in Oakland, including Robin Williams' vehicle, "What Dreams May Come," and Clint Eastwood's "True Crime."

The Oakland Film Commission, which is run through the city's Community & Economic Development Agency, was created a decade ago to help promote localized film. Which makes Zins' job a challenging one: wooing producers and filmmakers into the city, and encouraging them to spend money here.

"The crew from 'True Crime' worked incredibly efficient - they'd finished early every day. But we would have liked them to go overtime," she says, laughing.

A film permit in Oakland, which must be purchased to film on city property, is $150 a day. That permit is $50 a day for still photography assignments, and $100 a day for video production.

Location fees - on site rentals fees - are additional expenses. And these costs vary, depending on location and duration.

For instance, to record inside Oakland City Hall, it will cost producers $1,000 a day, compared with $10,000 a day in San Francisco City Hall, Zins says.

So it's not much of a surprise that the producers of "Nash Bridges," which is supposed to take place in San Francisco, have filmed some episodes in Oakland.

"It's funny to see the two detectives driving around, turning corners and passing through similar intersections," Zins says. "Basically, they're driving around in a circle in downtown Oakland. But most people wouldn't ever recognize that.

" Three weeks into her job, Zins suggested to her supervisor that somebody (wink, wink) should represent Oakland during an upcoming industry trade show in Los Angeles.

To her pleasant surprise, Zins got the green light to attend the gathering herself, at the city's expense.

She flew into Los Angeles and set up a booth at the convention, where she met with executives from Malpaso, Eastwood's production company.

That discussion ultimately led the production team into Oakland, where "True Crime," in which Eastwood plays a beleaguered newspaper reporter trying to prove the innocence of an inmate on Death Row, spent 15 days filming.

Zins says the production team had little prior knowledge of the city. "One of the producers didn't know that Oakland had a zoo," she says, "and they needed a zoo scene."

For years it was only Oakland's notoriously troubled neighborhoods that widened the eyes of filmmakers.

Now location scouts are being led to the city's treasures: Jack London Square, the Paramount Theatre, the Dunsmuir House, Lake Merrit, the Tribune Tower, the Federal buildings, Joaquin Miller Park, the Clairmont Resort & Spa and other spots.

Actor Sean Penn suggested during the filming of "Hurley Burley," in which he starred with Kevin Spacey, that some of its scenes be shot in Oakland.

And it happened. A scene that was suppose to take place in the Hollywood hills, was instead filmed in the Oakland Hills, Zins says.

"That is the one example of a recent trend in which films are being shot in the Bay Area - but are being set someplace else. And because one or more of the key players of a film may live in the area, it makes it easier," Zins says, adding that Sean Penn lives in Marin County.

Another hook for producers and stars considering a shoot in Oakland is the nearby presence of a state-of -the-art studio, just minutes from downtown and the Oakland Airport.

Manex Studios, located on the former Alameda Naval Air Station base in Alameda Point, is a sprawling 250,000 square-foot effects center.

Recently, it was used to create a startling specialeffects seen in the surprise hit "The Matrix," and was used to construct a prison set for "True Crime."

But at one point this commission had been spurned for its sporadic leadership, Zins says. And it took an image overhaul to convince filmmakers that working in Oakland would not be as laborious as it had been.

"Ami has been doing a great job, and she could certainly use some support," says Karen Engel, manager of business development with the Community & Economic Development Agency.

"Our tax revenue from this film program, which is in the millions of dollars, is considerable. The program supports itself. And with Mayor Brown committed to promoting the arts here - and Oakland is an art city - we're looking to increase this activity."

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