Commissioner Ami Zins makes sure that for visiting filmmakers, Oakland
East Bay Express (September 26, 2001)
people are best known for their connectivity. Colleagues of the
prolific mathematician Paul Erdos assigned each other an "Erdos
number" -- if you'd collaborated on a paper with him, your
Erdos number was "one," if you'd worked on a paper with
someone who had previously collaborated with him, your Erdos number
was "two," and so on. In his book The Tipping Point, about
how ideas spread and trends catch fire, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about
"contagious people" he calls "Connectors," the
few whose lives intersect so many social spheres that they end up
tying together the lives of the many. In his view, the glue that
holds most of the world together is a Chicago city employee named
Lois Weisberg; if you don't know her, you probably know someone
who does. There are, of course, the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Someone really should think up a way of counting how many lives
have been connected by Ami Zins.
is the film commissioner for the city of Oakland, and her touch,
while pervasive, is so gentle and unassuming that those outside
the film industry are often surprised to find how large a role Oakland
plays in the development of movies and television projects, or how
well-regarded it is by those who do this sort of thing for a living.
Banish from your mind the image of the lizardlike movie mogul with
the little ponytail, the Ray-Bans, and the sportscar. Robert Bobb
-- ultimately Zins' boss, since the Oakland Film Office is a subset
of the city manager's Office of Communications and Mass Media --
once dubbed her "Miss Peace, Love, and Happiness," and
the name fits. In an industry focused on fame and exposure, Zins
does her best work unobtrusively and off-camera; in a business obsessed
with money, Zins' currency is in her relationships with people.
an unseasonably overcast July afternoon, Zins is sitting in on her
favorite kind of project -- one in which she gets to work with new
talent, and one in which Oakland gets to play Oakland. (The city
often ends up playing a generic "anytown" -- or serving
as a secondary location for productions set in San Francisco.) This
particular shoot, a music video for a rapper named E-Dunn set in
a residential neighborhood a few blocks off the 880 freeway, is
an all-Oakland production. Director Samm Styles and producer Oliver
Sims formed their companies, Habiba Productions and Supreme Films,
after graduating from Skyline High; E-Dunn is an Oakland native
and former Golden Gloves champ; and the smaller roles in the video
were cast using advertisements in local beauty shops. The general
theme for the video is "block party" -- not entirely unexplored
territory in the world of hip-hop -- but in this case, the shoot
actually is serving as a neighborhood get-together. With the help
of the film office, Habiba Productions sent out fliers warning nearby
residents about noise and street closures the day of the shoot,
and invited them to attend the party and appear in the video as
of the day's production litter the block: tables of watermelon slices
and fried chicken, balloons and paper flower garlands laced through
neighbors' wrought-iron fences, a dozen kids coloring with chalk
on the street underneath a banner announcing the "First Annual
Black Is Beautiful Block Party." A deejay with his turntables
mounted atop two green plastic garbage bins spins records between
takes, and girls wearing tight white tank tops with iron-on letters
proclaiming the names of Oakland neighborhoods -- Chinatown, International
Boulevard, 98th Street, Linden, Alcatraz -- are getting ready for
their big scene, which involves gyrating for the camera on a flatbed
truck parked beneath the banner.
the real action right now is on the front porch of a mint green
and pumpkin colored Victorian duplex, where Styles is trying to
set up a shot centering on guest vocalist Candace Jones. Seated
about midway down the front steps, Jones has neighborhood kids planted
all around her. During the long setup for the shot, while crew members
carefully take measurements for camera focus and dab Jones down
with makeup to make her skin glisten as though the sun were out
in full force, the kids are kept quiet with Dixie cups of frozen
grape juice, colorful toys, and cans of Silly String to shoot during
the scene's final take.
the time the camera actually begins to roll, the gray and chilly
weather has taken its toll; the kids would rather huddle on the
steps than bounce to the music. "C'mon kids, c'mon kids,"
Styles shouts energetically into a bullhorn, as the playback tape
booms and Jones sings along. The kids shimmy halfheartedly as parents
off to the side yell encouragement. "The hardest thing to work
with is animals and kids," Styles sighs. The kids do perk up
for the final shot when they get to unloose the Silly String and,
in violation of orders to the contrary and an agreement sealed with
a handshake from the art director, aim it straight for Jones' hair.
watches happily, her curly hair buried beneath one of her trademark
floppy hats and a scarf. "I think the music videos often do
create a really good family feel within the neighborhood,"
she whispers between takes. In fact, Zins has brought members of
her own family along for the day, including her husband (retired
Laney College theater instructor Lew Levinson), her sister, and
her fourteen-month-old niece.
are those who might put the phrases "rap video" and "Oakland"
together and come up with a violent, or at least chaotic, image.
Not Zins. When you ask her to rewind through all of her memories
as film commissioner to select a favorite, Zins comes up with another
music video shoot, this one for the Santana and Everlast crossover
hit "Put Your Lights On," filmed at the East Bay Dragons
Motorcycle Club. She admits being worried that the combination of
biker club, big crowds, and an urban setting might go awry, but
the shoot turned into a positive community moment. Teenagers hunted
for autographs, people gathered on front porches to listen, and
Carlos Santana entertained bystanders by spontaneously bursting
into Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix covers, and at one point playing
Jewish folk songs while the eighty tattooed and pierced dancers
hired for the session spontaneously broke out into the hora. "It
was a wonderful evening," Zins remembers.
crews do not just show up in town one day with their lights, cameras,
and cast of thousands and simply roll tape. The process of putting
anything on film -- at least on public property -- involves a web
of permits and other paperwork, which is why most metropolitan areas
have a commissioner to guide filmmakers through the process. Zins
is one of about 45 such people in the state, and her directive is
twofold: to bring media business to Oakland, and, once here, to
help production companies successfully negotiate with public agencies,
as well as with affected businesses and neighbors. During her three
and a half years as the head of the Oakland Film Office, Zins has
worked with big names and no-names; she has smoothed the way for
million-dollar Hollywood productions as well as for tiny independent
and student film projects backed by collections of maxed-out credit
cards. Zins has shepherded the production of some of the most high-profile
blockbusters shot in the Bay Area, most notably the Clint Eastwood
psychological thriller True Crime, in which he played a reporter
for the Oakland Tribune, and the second and third installments of
The Matrix, which wrapped production earlier this summer. She has
also served as godmother to dozens of smaller projects -- television
shows and commercials, music and promotional videos, and still photography
shoots. She seems equally happy to work with all of them.
job ranges from long-term stuff, like convincing major studios to
site their projects in Oakland, to the incredibly tiny details of
film production, like making sure that traffic signals don't chirp
in the middle of a scene shot in a downtown intersection. When Groove
producers considered filming here, it was Zins who went to the Oakland
Police Department to find out which warehouses people were using
for raves; when The Matrix was filming, she was the one who had
to dissuade an overzealous meter maid from giving tickets to parked
cars that were being used as props in the film. She once single-handedly
quelled a small riot when the Teamsters, in a show of union solidarity,
tried to shut down a still photography shoot in the Oakland Coliseum
parking lot during the Screen Actors' Guild strike (models involved
in still photography shoots weren't part of the strike). She spends
countless hours smoothing jangled nerves when careless productions
flood neighbors' homes with noise and bright lights. She is the
person production companies call when they need to find a suitably
gothic abandoned train station, or the best Vietnamese food in town,
when they need parking for two hundred, or an AC Transit bus rerouted
away from a shoot. She is utterly indispensable, and the fact that
she is the film commissioner at all is almost entirely an accident.
has had an Office of Film (OFO) since the late '80s, but for several
years before Zins' arrival in 1998, it had been allowed to go nearly
dormant. The previous film commissioner was on extended disability
leave, and when production companies tried to call the office for
assistance, often all they got was a voicemail recording saying
that the mailbox was full. Veteran location managers had learned
to do business in Oakland by keeping blank copies of permits at
home and faxing them in for approval, but that system didn't work
as well for new arrivals. As a result, the city was losing potentially
TV show Nash Bridges which, though set in San Francisco, had originally
run its production from Oakland, moved its base across the bay,
and it's hard to estimate how many other potential projects simply
gave up calling. One project that Oakland was definitely in danger
of losing was True Crime -- Warner Bros. had originally wanted to
site the film here, but had a change of heart when their calls weren't
1998, Zins was teaching acting and directing at Laney College when,
in an attempt to find fieldwork for her students, she tried contacting
the film office. She ended up getting hired by the OFO herself --
for two weeks. Her tenure was extended for a few more weeks after
she learned of a trade show coming up in Los Angeles; she thought
a city delegation could make a good sales pitch for Oakland locations
and might also be able to make some friends in Hollywood. The city
agreed to let her try, so Zins rounded up some of her students and
headed to LA, where their networking was so effective that they
essentially got Warner Bros. to agree to give Oakland a second shot
at True Crime.
the Eastwood movie in the works, the city offered Zins a full-time
position, albeit one that was technically temporary and didn't come
with many resources. "All I came into was, like, a box full
of papers that was mostly old mail," says Zins. "When
I'd answer the phone, people would go, 'Oh, I didn't expect anybody
to answer. A person? Wow, what happened?'" The city was about
to find out how much Zins could accomplish with one desk, one phone,
one very old computer, and a pack of volunteer interns; word of
mouth soon spread that Oakland was back in the film business.
Holly crouches in the swampy foliage at the edge of Children's Fairyland.
Her look is one of pure paranoia, and in her hand she carries a
blaster rifle constructed by a friend at Lucasfilm. "Where
are you?" she shrieks, frantically clocking the stretches of
eerily vacant land to her right and left. Her look of anguish is
no doubt not entirely due to stagecraft -- it's getting chilly and
she is sopping wet from the waist down; an earlier shot had required
her to fall into Lake Merritt -- but she's doing a good job of conveying
panicky isolation even though she is surrounded on nearly all sides
by people doing their best to keep out of the way of the camera.
In addition to Zins, those trying to stay hidden include two Children's
Fairyland employees, the film's location manager, its two codirectors,
and several members of the cast and crew on break.
plays a lead in Dead City, a low-budget indie shot almost entirely
in Oakland at spots like Gaylord's Coffee, the ArtShip, and the
Ruby Room. The plot's a bit complicated, but here's the gist: Five
young people show up for what they think is a job interview, only
to later wake up in a deserted city where they are hunted through
the abandoned landscape by sinister agents who won't show their
faces. Director Jason R. Houston had Oakland in mind when he cowrote
the screenplay -- Children's Fairyland was a childhood favorite
of his -- but it turns out that getting Oakland to look deserted
wasn't as easy as anyone thought. "Downtown on a Sunday at
sunrise was good for empty shots," says Houston, casting a
glance around the lakeside park. "But shooting Lake Merritt
in the middle of the day..." he trails off, shaking his head.
is a striking presence, tall and lanky with wild reddish hair and
a beard that he's cultivated in order to do a cameo as a homeless
man in Dead City. At the moment his look is troubled. The shoot,
as shoots often do, was running behind, and now came the bad news
that their next location -- the public bathrooms at downtown Oakland's
Snow Park -- had been locked for the night. Yes, they had a permit
for the site; no, they hadn't been told that they'd have to finish
shooting there by 6:30.
does some quick mental calculating. On the one hand, she knows the
phone number of an officer with the parks police, who could probably
let them in. On the other hand, she thinks, maybe it would be better
if they found another public bathroom nearby, so they could shoot
before daylight fades. Not many people pride themselves on being
able to reel off the locations of public bathrooms -- in this case,
the more decayed the better -- but within minutes Zins has suggested
an alternate candidate, and the crew sets off to investigate. And
there it is, as disgusting as Zins had promised: the floor a sodden
pile of old leaves, plastic bags, splintered wooden planking, and
a sort of brownish-gray sludge. Better yet, it's unlocked. Houston,
problem solved, beams at the reeking mess. "This is great!"
the sort of moment that film commissioners live for -- the chance
to make doors open with a well-placed hint or phone call. Need to
shoot an ornate lobby? Zins has the number for the manager of a
classy senior center who loves to have filmmakers stop by. Need
aerial shots of the city? Zins knows which sergeant to ask for a
ride in an OPD helicopter. Need a curb repainted or a street sign
moved? Zins knows someone in Public Works who can help. Film commissioners
get work done because they know everybody -- or, more to the point,
they can get to know just about anybody.
City was one of two no-budget indies filming the same week this
summer. The other feature, titled I Got What You Want, required
an outdoor gunfight scene, and Zins guided its producers through
the process of alerting authorities and neighbors about disturbances
from simulated gunfire. "I like being able to take something
that's uncomfortable and scary and turn it into an experience that
people are excited and feel good about," she says. She points
to what she feels is one of her best moments in public relations:
During the filming of a hip-hop movie called Obstacles, the directors
had planned to film fight scenes in East and West Oakland neighborhoods
that had previously been scarred by gang violence. Residents didn't
like the idea, saying it might bring up bad memories, scare people,
or bolster the areas' already negative images.
she heard that the mayor's office was getting concerned phone calls,
Zins headed out to smooth things over. "I went to the neighborhoods,
talked personally to anybody who had made a call, and explained
to them that although the film did include acts of violence, the
creators of this project were trying to put out an antiviolent message,"
she says. "What we offered to do was invite the neighborhood
people to watch how the simulated gunfire was set up, watch how
squibs, which are the little explosives they put on a car or body
to blow up, were set up by the pyrotechnician. We let the kids look
through the camera. Then, of course, the rappers on hand were also
really great in meeting with neighborhood kids and signing autographs.
We were able to get it so there were no complaints following the
shooting. We just invited anyone who was uncomfortable to come be
a part of it to see what was going on. We sort of brought them to
way residents are placated is with money; big productions generally
compensate neighbors for their troubles, and reimburse nearby businesses
for lost sales. (Zins remembers a production that paid homeowners
$100 each to keep their front porch lights on or off all night to
ensure continuity for the shoot.) Many business owners and neighbors,
particularly in picturesque areas, have begun to demand exorbitant
fees. "When The Matrix was here, periodically there would be
a business that they would be working with that would have the impression
that -- The Matrix being a hundreds of millions of dollars production
-- they could ask for astronomical amounts of money for being touched
by the project," says Zins. "A number of my phone calls
were talking to businesses and explaining to them where all that
money goes and how it also has to be spread out amongst millions
of entities that need to be paid." Zins and the city don't
have the authority to enforce or negotiate agreements between a
production company and citizens or private entities: the best she
can be, she says, is "a calming force." Usually, that's
how to handle complicated, sometimes touchy, situations didn't come
easily. "The first couple of years were very intense,"
says Zins. "A lot of it was learning curve, a lot of it was
having to rebuild the office, not having the infrastructure, even
the equipment or the budget." But Zins also has many factors
on her side as she attempts to woo filmmakers to Oakland: a mild
climate, a diverse population, a varied landscape, and some very
well-preserved architecture. Parking and street closures are also
easier in Oakland than, say, San Francisco.
Zins' arrival, dozens of features had filmed at least partially
in Oakland; they run the gamut from independents and art films (Drylongso,
Until the End of the World) to Hollywood hits (Angels in the Outfield,
Mrs. Doubtfire, Basic Instinct, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) to total
filler (Kuffs, Flubber, Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie). Perhaps the
sign that Oakland was ready to again be a major player came when,
after over a year of wooing from the film office and the city manager's
office, Warner Brothers agreed to site the second and third Matrix
movies in the East Bay, requiring five days of exterior shoots in
downtown Oakland. (The original Matrix was shot entirely in Australia,
although special effects were done at Manex Studios on Alameda Island.)
"I think they wanted us off their backs," says Zins. "I
think we were just so persistent they said, 'Okay, we'll film there!
Leave us alone!'" Impressed by the amount of work necessary
to pull off the Matrix project, the city agreed to hire an assistant
for Zins -- her former intern, Jennifer Bauman.
argument that Zins' office should be made into a real "department"
couldn't have been hurt by the fact that Oakland Film Office makes
good money. As a rule of thumb, California film commissions figure
that for each day a project shoots in a city, $42,000 is added to
the local economy through permit fees, equipment rentals, local
hiring, and money spent on hotels and restaurants. That figure is
an average, of course, and some productions spend more than others,
but Zins points out that even the lowest budget projects are good
for Oakland because, though their budget may be small, they'll very
likely spend it all on local enterprises.
hard to know exactly how much Oakland makes from filming, as most
studios are secretive about how much they spend on location. Zins
calculates that True Crime had a $3 million impact on Oakland; using
the $42,000-per-shooting-day formula, The Matrix would have pumped
about another $2.5 million into the East Bay economy, although Zins
says that number is "way way way too low," given the scope
of the production and the fact that it employed hundreds of local
extras. Again sticking strictly to the formula, Oakland made at
least $6.2 million during the first eight months of this year, and
that's just counting production days and not money added to the
economy when filmmakers do editing, special effects, and other post-production
work at East Bay facilities.
does that money go? It pretty much gets spread all over town. The
city collects permit fees as well as wages for public employees
hired for the shoot (like security officers or building engineers).
Other location fees are collected site by site and can vary widely.
Fees from filming at a public school site are at the discretion
of that school's principal. Mountain View Cemetery charges $10,000
a day for filming, City Hall charges $1,500 a day, the parks charge
$750, the airport charges $400 an hour.
in the State Office Building, by contrast, is free. The reason?
Blame Canada. In recent years, our neighbor to the north has instituted
such whopping tax credits for movie makers that many productions
are taking their work across the border. This includes projects
that many in the Bay Area film community think should have rightfully
been made here, such as The Further Tales of the City (a San Francisco
feature if there ever was one) and Romeo Must Die (ostensibly set
in Oakland). The California film industry considers the flight of
productions to Canada to be such a serious threat that earlier this
year the state set aside $45 million -- to be spent in $15 million
chunks over three years -- to reimburse costs for filming on California
public properties. The not-so-subtle name given to the program was
Film California First, and it includes downright Canadian-style
perks such as reimbursements for shooting on state property and
hiring public employees. Zins thinks Oakland can take some credit
for propelling the idea behind Film California First -- several
years earlier, the city had developed its Economic Enterprise Zone
program that provided incentives for those who do business within
certain neighborhoods. Because of that program, Warner Brothers
was able to recoup about a half-million dollars spent filming True
Zins portrays the Bay Area film community as highly cooperative.
After all, big features rarely shoot all in one city -- a job in
one commissioner's district often means work for all. "In the
three and a half years that I've been here, I can't think of a case
of anybody feeling like anything was ever done underhandedly, that
someone had stolen a project," says Zins, who meets several
times each year with the commissioners from other Northern California
locales to trade tips and plan strategy. "We're not really
working to take business away from each other; we're trying to make
a little nucleus of film business here in the Bay Area. The more
business we can bring here on a regular basis, the more crew members
will be able to rely on the film industry to pay the rent so they
can continue living here in the Bay Area instead of feeling that
they have to go down to Los Angeles for work. That in turn means
a larger crew base, which makes it more likely that major productions
will come up here. It snowballs quite nicely."
year-round work can be challenging. Feature films are by their very
nature short-term projects, and the Bay Area film community's biggest
cash cow, Nash Bridges, was canceled last season. There's no question
that Zins' is a high-risk business, and plans often fall through.
During the summer, Zins and her staff put a great deal of effort
into pursuing bids for both a power drink commercial and an episode
of The X-Files, high-tech shoots which would have had people either
vaulting over or driving off various East Bay bridges. In the end
the contracts for both went to other locations. After all Zins'
work helping to arrange the gunfight scene for I Got What You Want,
the shoot was ultimately moved to another city.
the slumping economy has drained another employment mainstay --
TV commercials -- and the threat of a writers' strike this summer
put a wrench in many filming plans. "It's been dead in the
water this whole summer," says longtime location manager Ed
French. "Everyone's making deals for half their rates, equipment
packages are going out for a week for a two-day rate. It's bad up
here but it's worse in LA."
raised the ante for Zins. It's widely known that a fake freeway
was built on Alameda Island for the Matrix shoot -- BART drivers,
in fact, would slow down and point it out to passengers -- but
when the shoot was done, the freeway came down, a vast disappointment
to Zins. "Most of us in the film community would have really
loved to have had an empty freeway nearby to facilitate the
filming of car commercials," she says. "People should
think about when they're watching television, how many of those
commercials are car commercials? And how many of those commercials
used to be for dot-com companies? That's accounting for some
of the major slowdown, I think, in commercial production here
in the Bay Area -- the real diminishing of commercials for dot-com
companies and also Industrial and corporate videos for dot-coms."
response, Zins has tried to come up with other ways of bringing
in business, like expanding the Film Office's location photo
gallery, and making more photos available on the Web, hopefully
attracting new projects. Bauman, along with interns Amanda Melton
and Juliana Montgomery, came up with another idea: Throw a huge
bash for the film industry at City Hall. In May, the city hosted
its first "Ciné Soiree." Employees of Gondola
Servizio sang Italian love songs from the landing. Jerry Brown
allowed his office to be turned into a VIP lounge. Furniture
rental agency Sam Clar -- which does good business when production
companies need to set up offices in a hurry -- arranged leather
sofas throughout the lobby so that people could sit and network.
Caterers, equipment houses, and locations set up booths to showcase
their services (the Oakland Zoo's booth had live furry creatures).
And best of all, the weather was balmy, encouraging location
scouts to stroll around City Hall Plaza. And it worked -- while
filming on the plaza had resulted in a mere $5,500 in permit
fees in the first six months of 2001, during the six weeks following
the gala the city made another $5,000 off the plaza alone.
since going to the film industry seems to work better than waiting
for it to call, Zins has started another program: giving location
scouts tours of Oakland's film-friendly establishments. These
are not the kinds of tours you can get by buying a ticket; scouts
usually want to see restricted areas like rooftops, boiler rooms,
sewers, and conference rooms.
Zins arrives for the first tour of the summer, at East Oakland's
Holy Redeemer Center, she's already in a good mood. She's just
returned from Eastmont Mall, where she'd realized that some
of the health service centers could serve as reasonable stand-ins
for hospital settings (East Bay hospitals are notoriously unwilling
to allow filming). Her mood is lifted even higher by the number
of scouts assembling in Holy Redeemer's main hall. The center
is a former seminary that has been used as a sanctuary for Central
American refugees and a hospice for homeless people with AIDS.
Now it's being used mainly as a retreat for religious groups
and scholars, but the center's directors are hoping it will
take on yet another life as a movie set. The campus, with its
mission-style architecture, red tile roofs, and flowering courtyards,
certainly has potential.
scouts have plenty of questions. Can they build and dismantle
sets on the site? Even if they're not shooting here, can they
use the facilities for crew housing or parking lots? Someone
asks whether there's a swimming pool, and a staffer, regret
in his voice, says yes, but it's been drained. As one, the audience
lets out an admiring "Oooh" noise, drained swimming
pools being one of those restricted-access areas truly appreciated
by film scouts, skateboarders, and very few others.
scouts troop through the grounds, some of them taking shots
with digital cameras and using compasses to determine the direction
in which sunlight will come through the windows. They inspect
the chapel, the kitchen, the meditation labyrinth; Zins even
demands to be shown the linen closet. Finally, the group pauses
on the deck of a guest house to compare notes. "What here
would be useful?" muses Zins. "Well, everything. The
labyrinth in that field I find very interesting [for] music
videos. But this being a place for religious and faith-based
retreats, I would be very careful, too, about what production
companies and what kinds of music I would want to send here.
do get quite a few calls for chapels for anything from features
to commercials," she continues. "And it's going to
sound funny, but I noticed that in their book they had a picture
of one of their bathrooms. It was a very old bathroom with gold
sinks." Met with at least one incredulous stare, she insists,
"We do get requests for specific descriptions of bathrooms.
They'll go, okay, we want an old-fashioned bathroom with four
urinals and two stalls and a drain in the floor, and you're
like, 'Oh sure, let me find that for you.'"
does Zins handle requests for really strange or next-to-impossible-to-find
locations? "I say 'Okay,'" she says. "I have
to just have an open mind and attitude. Sometimes these projects
come up and I never hear from them again. Or it could turn out
to be a huge feature."
fact, scouts are accustomed to being asked to track down bizarre
landscapes and scenarios. "Sometimes they tell me things
and I just stand there with my mouth open," says freelance
location scout Barbara McQuaid, who is listening nearby. Her
husband Lance Hoffman, another scout, remembers one of the more
unusual Oakland locations McQuaid was asked to look for: a route
for an elephant stampede. "It was for Made in America,
and it had to be a downtown car dealership where Ted Danson
is on an elephant and the elephant gets away from him and runs
down and jumps into the lake," says Hoffman. "Barbara
went out and looked around and realized there was an empty parking
lot where they very quickly built a car dealership showroom,
and from there it was a straight shot down the street to the
some ways, Oakland's urban image precedes it in the film industry.
"When I was first in this job, the majority of calls were
for gritty inner-city-type scenes," says Zins. "I
felt like we were pigeonholed a little bit, but it's really
opened up now." The Bay Area's once-mighty tech economy,
she feels, had some success in changing minds. "We get
a number of calls for commercials or industrials that want to
shoot at a dot-com or a live/work space or in the new high-rise
office buildings that are in downtown Oakland," she says.
scouts even feel that Oakland's improving economy is making
it difficult to find suitably gritty landscapes when they're
needed. "It's the very prosperity that's coming to Oakland,
and the fact that so much energy's been put into renovating
the downtown," says McQuaid. "I find that when I go
back to look for another project, something that was great has
now been all renovated and is no longer available."
course, Oakland also does its share of stand-in work. In the
Sean Penn flick Hurlyburly, the Oakland hills doubled for the
Hollywood hills. Zins sometimes sends scouts up to Joaquin Miller
Park for Sierra-like scenery for car commercials. And some residential
neighborhoods can pass for just about anywhere in the USA. Location
managers often compare City Hall Plaza to a Universal back lot;
seen from the center, you can get an entirely different look
by shooting each direction -- a park, a line of small shops,
modern government buildings, City Hall itself.
day while watching photographers shoot pictures for a Mervyn's
ad on the plaza, Zins stops to chat with Dennis Franckowski,
an OPD officer who frequently works security on sets. While
trading war stories about past shoots (expensive equipment that
walked away, passersby who attempted to sit in the director's
chair), they get to talking about a pilot for a police drama
titled Partners that was shot in Oakland by producers aiming
for an all-American look. The pilot never got picked up by a
network, which was an immense disappointment for Zins and others
who'd hoped it would not only provide year-round employment
for crews, but show off Oakland a little as a nice place to
would love to have a series set here," says Zins. "This
is my goal while I am in this job, I want there to be a series."
want there to be a series in Oakland that actually says they're
in Oakland," seconds Franckowski.
sighs Zins. "It would be so nice to show off Oakland as
a city because Oakland's so unique."
scene is one of Oakland's most easily discernible landmarks:
the Dunsmuir House and gardens. In front of the mansion, a lavish
feast has been spread, and well-dressed actors, half of then
in American formalwear, half of them in Chinese gowns, are frozen
mid-mingle, waiting for the cameras to roll. The director is
standing on a white plastic chair, yelling instructions. "Don't
eat too much," he good-naturedly shouts at the assembled
cast, using a paper cup as a megaphone. "Maybe we will
need it next time."
show is Human Cargo, a 25-part series being made for Chinese
television that will somehow be condensed into two episodes
for American audiences. Production manager and coproducer Jenny
Yeh explains that despite the difficulties of getting the permits
necessary to take a film crew and cast out of China, they came
to Oakland looking for authentic American settings. The film's
star, resplendent on the lawn in a seafoam green dress, plays
the wealthy head of a ring that smuggles people out of China;
the distinguished guests are supposed to be American senators.
To the production team, Dunsmuir House seemed the perfect backdrop
for a story of greed, corruption, and acquired American tastes.
Cargo is the follow-up to A Beijinger in New York, a novel adapted
for television that became a huge hit in China; 1.4 billion
people are expected to watch Human Cargo when it airs. But despite
the scale of the project, the whole operation is running on
a shoestring budget, and its producers make it clear that they
are grateful for Zins' assistance, which even included helping
them get a permit to film in the basement of her office building.
"I've never met a film commissioner who worked that hard,
with such a kind heart, to think on the film company's side
and provide us services, even outside of her duties," says
Yeh. "She would try to find locations, to save us money,
to give us other suggestions of where to film."
meanwhile, is busy counting familiar faces on the set -- "Only
four," she says in dismay, as though the vast majority
of the cast and crew had not recently arrived from the other
side of the world. She is glad to see several old colleagues
finding work in Oakland: a hairstylist and a wardrobe manager,
both of whom worked on Nash Bridges; a former Matrix production
assistant; and actor Michael Chow, who played a lead in the
martial arts spoof Kung Phooey, which also shot in Oakland earlier
this year. "These are the really exciting ones, the low
budgets that really integrate themselves into the local film
industry and the local community and draw people from all aspects
of the community," says Zins. "And the projects that
are multicultural, I really like those. Having grown up in the
Bay Area sometimes I'll be on a film set and I'll be like, 'Where
did all these white people come from?'" She takes a satisfied
look around. "This is good. You can feel that there is
a lot of respect, a lot of people learning, and people who've
worked on really major projects are now working on this."
Zins is proud for another reason. A historic setting like Dunsmuir
House might bring foreign film crews here, but she knows this
crew is happy with the treatment her office gave them, and that's
what will keep them coming back. "We haven't been able
to offer a glossy promotional guide with fancy color pictures
of Oakland yet, but it's what we can do as individuals -- take
the attitude to be friendly and helpful," she says. "The
truth is Robert Bobb is right. My modus operandi is peace, love,
is hard to imagine Zins as the retiring type, and yet she says
that's what forced her into show business in the first place.
"I was painfully shy," she says. "I signed up
for acting actually because it was painful for me to read a
paragraph from my paper in English class." Her college
career took her from Laney to UCLA to SF State; it was at Laney
that Zins finally got coaxed out onto the stage. "I was
terribly shy onstage; I just wanted to do walk-ons, no lines,
sort of be part of the background," she says. Then somebody
got fired from a production of Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk
Circle, and a fill-in was needed to play an "off-with-their-heads
type" whose big scene ends up with the actor being dragged
offstage kicking and screaming. She took the part. "There
was something very exciting and freeing about playing a character
who is so extremely different from me. That was a really big
breakthrough," she says.
also began directing -- again, almost accidentally. "I
had never before thought of directing, I wouldn't have had the
courage to think of being in charge of that large a project,
but when I was looking for scenes to do for acting class, I
read this play. I was very drawn to it, I became obsessed with
the play, but none of the characters were quite right for me,
I felt, and I kept thinking of other people in the acting class
who would be good for this part. I started getting images of
how I wanted to stage it, and it just came to me," says
Zins. "I had this feeling that I couldn't let go of. I
would be doing something else and I'd get an image for how this
scene should work."
eventually got her master's in directing from SF State, did
a stint as stage manager at San Francisco's Theatre on the Square,
began working as an instructor at Laney College, and acted in
the occasional commercial. (A personal favorite is a TV ad for
Poli-grip denture adhesive, in which she demonstrates her apple-biting
ability and utters the line, "Yikes, that's incredible!")
Close observers can often find members of her staff playing
extras in Oakland productions, and Zins herself has filled in
during an emergency or two. Human Cargo viewers will see her
make a brief appearance as a secretary with a startling hairstyle.
Becoming the head of the Oakland Film Office meant at least
a temporary move away from theater directing, but Zins sees
a strong parallel between what drew her to directing and her
work now. As a director, her favorite part of the process was
casting, putting the right people together onstage to make a
project work. Now she does it in real life. One night, driving
home after a particularly long day, Zins is in a reflective
mood. "I like to think of myself as a matchmaker,"
she says. "I love connecting other people to each other
and reaching out and finding things. The other day we were out
for a walk, and I saw a woman parking a car with a license plate
that said GORE WON so I stopped, talked to her, exchanged names
and numbers because I'm thinking, there's going to be some film
that would like to use this car.
or five years ago," she continues, "I had a bike accident
that almost killed me, and I think since then I've had this
thing about wanting to get to know all kinds of people. Really
get to know them and connect them up to one another. And that's
what I love about this job -- being able to find those connections."
Lew Levinson, who is listening from the front seat, chuckles.
"When she makes a good connection she likes to jump up
and down and go, Yeah!" he says.
certainly do," says Zins.
of the projects Zins helps shepherd never get finished, and
some of those that get finished never make it to theaters. Not
so with Haiku Tunnel, written and directed by Bay Area brothers
Josh and Jacob Kornbluth. (Josh also stars as a character remarkably
named "Josh Kornbluth.") Made for only $200,000, it
was the first film to be picked up at Sundance this year, and
it opened in the Bay Area last week. The film is a point of
triumph for Zins because although it is actually set in an entirely
fictional (ahem) city called "San Franclisco," the
production managed to shoot in all three Oakland government
buildings on City Center Plaza, including the personal offices
of Jerry Brown and Robert Bobb, a fact that clearly impressed
the directors themselves. "When you're a young, excited
filmmaker, it seems like you never get to the guy who gets you
into the building, but Ami really helped us make that happen,"
says Jacob Kornbluth. "She did a search herself and called
people downtown and took us around on the days we were scouting.
Her heart was really in it; she was fighting for us, and she
was excited about our project, and she really wants filming
to happen here."
were sort of amazed and delighted when Ami Zins said we could
use the mayor's office," adds his brother. "I guess
they like her or something because they let her have the run
of the place." Close observers and city employees may recognize
certain lobbies, offices, hallways, and elevators while watching
Haiku Tunnel; during the movie's premiere at San Francisco's
Bridge Theater, Zins was ready to supply an excited poke in
the ribs whenever something familiar came into the frame.
are some people in the world for whom film is something very
commercial, and the essence of it is a product," says Josh
Kornbluth. "Ami's approach clearly seems to be the opposite
of that. The thing she seemed to be excited about was that people
were creating stuff, not whether the end process was commercial
or not. It makes all the difference to have that spirit. When
you have people like Ami Zins who love people and love film
of any kind or size, that can't help but be conducive to other
people wanting to tell stories to not immediately think, 'I
have to go to LA or New York or Vancouver.' It makes it possible
for people to not only make films in this great place but to
a sentiment echoed by just about everyone who has crossed paths
with the Oakland Film Office. ("Do you know how much this
is costing me?" Zins hisses in a fake stage whisper after
the umpteenth producer or location manager has spontaneously
launched into an accolade.) And yet, in an industry where everyone
seems to want to be a star or a starmaker, what Zins wants as
a reward for all her efforts is very small indeed: for Oakland
to get a line of thanks in the closing credits. As Haiku Tunnel's
seemingly interminable list of credits begins to roll, for the
first time Zins seems a little nervous. In her lap, her fingers
are crossed. "I want to see the Oakland Film Office up
there," she whispers. And when her name and title do come
up seconds later, her whole seating section -- packed as it
is with her former interns and students -- bursts out into hollers.
The Kornbluth brothers later single her out from the stage,
and thank her for all her help. As the audience cheers and claps,
Zins folds her hands over her heart in a mock sigh. Then, as
the lights come up and the crowd begins to dissipate, Zins is
immediately out of her seat, her eyes bright, her hat and scarf
bobbing as she weaves through the crush, introducing herself,
giving congratulatory hugs, and making connections.Film crews
don't just show up in town one day with their lights and their
cast of thousands and just let the cameras roll. They need help
every step of the way. They need Ami Zins.
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