The Film Commission's Big Cliffhanger - Voice of San Diego

Arts/Culture

The Film Commission's Big Cliffhanger

The Film Commission was a casualty of a standoff over the pot of money that funded it. Film crews with ongoing projects are left to figure out what to do next.

The details were coming together for filmmaker Kevin Diamond’s upcoming projects – a “Romeo and Juliet-like borderland drama” and “a young adult beach musical comedy” – which he intends to shoot on location beginning in a few weeks in spots like Old Town, Mission Bay and Bay Park.

But then last week, the guy who’s been Diamond’s contact, was suddenly off the job. The region’s Film Commission website is down. A recorded voicemail on the commission’s phone number wishes filmmakers luck and wistfully recalls the commission’s four decades of work.

The Film Commission’s three employees were among huge Tourism Authority staff cuts last week. And with the commission’s closure, film crews like Diamond’s with ongoing projects are left to navigate the maze of local permitting and various jurisdictions without a guide.

The Film Commission was a casualty of a standoff over the pot of money that funded it. This year the city moved to protect taxpayers from the potential risk that a surcharge on hotel bills – the Tourism Marketing District fee on top of regular hotel-room taxes – could be deemed illegal. The city and the TMD agreed that hotels would assume the risk if courts found the extra tax illegal. But then, some large hotels balked, refused to sign paperwork and much of the TMD funding was frozen.

Diamond and his company, Angelic Pictures, based in Clairemont, have been shooting locally since 2000. They’ve had years of support from the commission, an organization that coordinated permits and public safety for film crews looking to shoot just about anywhere in the city, the county or along the waterfront.

“The Film Commission fell off of the planet last week and that’s left everything kind of like, ‘How do we get things done’ and ‘Who do we talk to?’” he said.

In the meantime, business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and City Council representatives are catching wind of the hiccups and doing what they can to calm filmmakers.

The city’s director of special events, Carolyn Wormser, is trying to pick up some slack for shoots within city limits, too. Film crews often need special arrangements with police and fire departments for closing streets or conducting explosions, and those departments still have the same staff in place to deal with requests. The city’s policy is still to allow film crews to shoot in parks without paying regular park fees.

The current issue is directing prospective filmmakers and those with already slated projects on where to turn and who to get in touch with. The commission was instrumental in getting all of those groups together and helping the film crew through the process.

“From a city perspective, many of our departments have had long and solid relationships with the film industry,” she said.

But the transition has still been bumpy, especially when it comes to the transfer of documents like contact lists, sample permit forms and information for ongoing projects, she said.

The Tourism Authority, the commission’s most recent parent organization, hasn’t yet shared those details – or gotten the website up that would point filmmakers toward Wormser and other local representatives.

“The transition or dissolution may not have gone as smoothly as we’d anticipated,” Wormser said.

That should change in the coming week, said Joe Terzi, president and CEO of the Tourism Authority. The website should be up and running to direct film crews to the appropriate contacts in the region’s cities and unincorporated areas, he said.

“We’re working on a more holistic plan on how to deal with this,” he said.

The shuttering is the latest change for a long-standing institution that spent time under the Chamber and its own nonprofit umbrella before being absorbed by the Tourism Authority last year. Its funding traditionally came from the city, the county and the port after then-Mayor Pete Wilson started it in 1975. Cuts in government grants pushed the commission toward tourism funding, but the relationship has been awkward at times. The film industry’s economic impact is different than, say, a festival.

Diamond said his projects will require booking 200 “room nights” in local hotels, but that’s not the bulk of the spending he’ll do locally – that comes in the form of food and hiring local workers. So measuring the commission’s impact by room nights alone isn’t a full picture.

“We’re a local company and we like to work with local people in San Diego, and local people don’t get hotels,” he said.

Cathy Anderson ran the Film Commission for 25 years.

The organization helped capture business like “Titanic,” which filmed in Baja California but employed San Diego caterers, shoe repairers and nurses to the tune of $70 million, she said.

The proactive recruiting of business, and expert review of a filmmaker’s plan for shooting are lost when the work of hosting film crews is pushed into a permit office, she said.

“If you try to Band-aid it and just get something up — everything in the film industry is word of mouth,” she said. “When things are not right, let it go until it can be done right.”

Still, Wormser’s optimistic about the future.

A group of local production managers, location scouts and other film professionals has talked with her about forming a coalition. The statewide version of the effort, the California Film Commission, has been in touch with the city and with Terzi.

“This is an industry that certainly has an economic niche. Some of it may be tourism-based and some of it may be otherwise,” she said. “I think that eventually I would see a point where we’re reaching out to the other agencies – to develop a relatively seamless process.”

As for the relatively seamless process that existed until last week, filmmakers like Diamond won’t benefit.

“I have no doubt this problem will be dealt with effectively in the coming months, but we have a start date in a couple weeks,” he said.

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