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
"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
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.
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
"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:
'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
"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
Eric Young is a staff writer for the San Francisco Business
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