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Lights, camera, Oakland
City's star power doubles film shoots

By Eric Young
San Francisco Business Times

April 16, 2004

All right, Mr. DeMille, Oakland is ready for its close-up.
The East Bay city has almost doubled the number of film shoots taking place in its parks and streets, along Lake Merritt and throughout the foothills. The city last year logged 180 "film days," which are a count of days when cameras are rolling or film crews are working. That compares to 96 film days five years ago.

"We want to be known as a good place to shoot," said Ami Zins, director of the Oakland Film Office, which issues permits for movie makers, TV producers, advertisers and photographers.

A number of factors are behind the upswing in Oakland's film business, say local film industry workers, including permitting fees that are half the cost of those in San Francisco, an accommodating film commission and incentives available to film crews working in the city's various enterprise zones.

Filming in San Francisco also has been on the rise of late, but activity still remains below the city's heyday in 2000. Meanwhile Oakland has been on a steady rise and has captured significant work from a number of high-profile feature film projects, including "Mona Lisa Smile" starring Julia Roberts, and "Matrix Reloaded" with Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne.

Filming for "The Bee Season," an adaptation of the 2000 novel starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche, just concluded in Oakland. Marin County resident and Academy Award winner Sean Penn will star in a new movie, "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," that will start filming in Oakland later this year. And rapper/actor Ice Cube is expected to play a major role in a sequel to the 2002 action film "XXX" that is expected to shoot a climactic scene in Oakland.

A major film or TV series shot on location lends prestige to a city, of course. But the money it can bring to local coffers is equally important. Consider "The Bee Season," which shot in various locations around Oakland. Crews for the film, due for release next year, were in town for four months and spent an estimated $6 million on hotels, food, set construction and wages, Zins said.

City backing
Many in the local film industry trace part of Oakland's rise to the city's film office, which has become increasingly active. Until the late 1990s, Oakland officials had ignored the office to the point where callers were routinely greeted by an answering machine.

"When I answered the phone, people were shocked," Zins said of her first days in the office in 1998. Zins joined the office as a part-time employee and became full-time director a few years ago.

Oakland's film office has developed a reputation among some in the local film community as being more aggressive and accommodating than San Francisco's. "The administration running Oakland, they have always been very conscious of being the bastard child of the Bay Area so they will always go out of their way," said Lope Yap Jr., who has produced, directed and done production management for TV shows like San Francisco-based "Nash Bridges" and the movie "40 Days and 40 Nights."

In addition to attracting projects to Oakland, the city's film office is now overseeing a cluster of businesses that cater to the film industry. The Oakland Film Center has opened on two acres of the city's old Army Base. Companies offering everything from electrical generators to film and sound editing are housed together in a one-stop-shop for directors and producers who are bringing projects to the area.

Other Oakland advantages include enterprise zones throughout the city. These state-designated zones allow film makers to get credits on payroll taxes. Oakland also has kept its permit fees lower than those in San Francisco. It costs $150 a day to shoot a feature film in Oakland. San Francisco's daily charge: $300.

'Fishing all the time'
Filming in San Francisco continues to be steady business, but not at the levels it enjoyed up until 2000. San Francisco officials cite the detrimental impact of the recession on local film production. In addition, many projects are lured to Canada or other lower-wage areas.
"The film industry goes in cycles. Some years are better than others," said Carole Isaacs, deputy director of the San Francisco Film Commission. "Many things are out of our control." Last year San Francisco logged 810 film days, down from 1,063 in 2000.

Isaacs compared luring big-time TV and film projects to fishing. "You are out fishing all the time and you hope eventually you catch a fish," she said.

San Francisco continues to be a favored destination among directors, she said, because of its views and instantly recognizable landmarks.
But she and film commissioners say the city needs to do more to attract film makers.

"My sense is it has gotten harder to shoot here because of our fees," said Lynn Hershman Leeson, a San Francisco film commissioner for five years. She said she will support lowering fees and perhaps employing other financial incentives for filmmakers. "If you bring (film) people here they will spend money."

Eric Young is a staff writer for the San Francisco Business Times.

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