San Diego Film Commission Is Ripe for a Reboot

Opinion

San Diego’s Film Commission Is Ripe for a Reboot

More than marketing and permit fees, bringing the film industry back to San Diego is about putting San Diegans to work in skilled positions that pay well.

As San Diego considers reopening its local film office, which closed in 2013 amid huge staff cuts at the city’s Tourism Authority, the surrounding discussions have ranged from a film shoot’s marketing value for San Diego to the different roles local residents could play as extras.

The real value of a film shoot runs much deeper.

More than marketing and permit fees, bringing the film industry back to San Diego is about putting San Diegans to work in skilled positions that pay well. Even a simple commercial shoot would put a dozen technicians to work. These are long days at good wages. When that commercial leaves the city, those wages don’t. Those technicians buy their groceries and gas right here in town. The same thing happens on a grander scale with a feature film or series.

Case in point: “Terriers,” a 13-episode FX series shot in San Diego in 2010 that wasn’t renewed and few likely remember. Considered a failure by Hollywood standards, “Terriers” generated about $16 million in local spending, according to the mayor’s office.

Here’s the breakdown: nearly $1 million on rent paid to local property owners, more than $500,000 for hotel stays; almost $400,000 for food and $10.5 million on local wages. San Diego can regularly generate that kind of money and much more because it happens to have some of the most effective tools for budget predictability in the business: local labor talent, diverse locations and predictable, temperate weather.

The predictable weather is hugely important – and something that other trendy places like Portland and San Antonio can’t offer – because it adds up to consecutive shooting days. And consecutive shooting days add up to budget control. The varied locations found in San Diego, from our many distinct neighborhoods and businesses to the parks and beaches and even the military, also aid productions. Dramatic shifts in scenery can be accomplished in days, or even hours, rather than weeks or months.

Another big payoff is the crew. The larger a production’s crew is local, the lower the total labor cost. It’s always going to be less expensive for employees to sleep in their own beds versus a hotel in any business, and film is no different. Hiring more locals just makes good business sense, more so when those dramatic shifts in scenery don’t require a new local crew. Those same dramatic shifts in scenery and reliable local crew also support a filmmaker’s need for flexibility, another huge value to filming in San Diego.

What San Diego doesn’t have, however, is a connector between all these benefits and production companies worldwide. This is where the film commission comes in.

The film commissions in various cities offer a variety of services to the production company, but the one common thread is permitting. San Francisco, Seattle, Las Vegas and Atlanta all issue permits for film production directly through their respective film offices. Ease of permitting becomes more vital when locations change. An effective film office makes the initial permitting process easier, and it makes changes easier by directly coordinating with the film.

Right now in San Diego, a film production applies for a permit in the same office that the typical San Diegan would go to for permission to throw a block party. This is an invitation for problems –  both with the production companies that don’t want to deal with bureaucrats who don’t understand the film business and with residents who have no say in the process.

Film offices staffed with people who understand how the business works can avoid these problems and develop a set of reasonable standards. Once developed and approved, the standards will be made readily available to the production company, even before first contact. The film agrees to the conditions, the permit is issued, either by dedicated permitting officials or, better yet, by members of the film office.

To get a sense of what San Diego is missing out on, let’s go up the road to Portland, Ore., where the hit network series “Grimm” recently celebrated filming its 100th episode.

Years ago, Oregon set up an incentive program similar to what’s currently in place in California. Portland took that and created the Portland Film Office. When “Grimm” showed up in 2010, the Portland Film Office was there to help. Conservative estimates show over $250 million in direct spending going to Portland’s economy thanks to the show, according to the Portland Business Journal.

When you include indirect spending, some estimates from the governor’s office have the total contribution of “Grimm” at over $750 million. This is just five years later. Grimm also provides 332 full-time jobs to Oregonians, the majority living right there in Portland. Granted, 100 episodes is pretty long and rare for a show these days. “Terriers,” however, has clearly taught us that a series doesn’t need to be a raging success to create a substantial positive impact on the economics of a community. What does have to happen is the film has to get here.

California’s incentive program set aside $330 million in tax credits for filming in California for the next three fiscal years. What’s important is when the film has to apply. The final application for a TV series, those potential homeruns, is Feb. 21. With no local film office, San Diego is in line to pick up nothing. There is not a single series, cable or network, considering San Diego for its shoot.

This is decidedly not the case for San Francisco, Santa Barbara or even Santa Clarita, each of which has a film office staffed with full-time employees dedicated to making filming in their region as simple as possible.

Mike Harris is a stagehand who lives in Normal Heights. Harris’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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