The low-budget thriller "The Call" had a surprisingly strong debut this weekend, pulling in $17.1 million in ticket sales to beat out the Warner Bros. comedy "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" to come in second place at the domestic box office.
But even more surprising is the fact that "The Call," which stars Halle Berry as a veteran 911 operator, was filmed entirely on location in Los Angeles.
The movie, produced by Troika Pictures and WWE Studios and released by Sony Pictures, is a rare example of a movie that returned to L.A. after producers were preparing to shoot in Canada, long the main foreign destination for Hollywood films lured away by generous subsidies offered to filmmakers.
Producers of "The Call" had applied for a California film tax credit in June 2011, but the movie wasn't among the roughly 40 film and television projects that made the cut. In fact, it was ranked 83 out of 136 projects on a waiting list for a share of the $100 million in tax breaks, which are awarded annually via a lottery because of limited funds.
Given that a tax credit was required to help finance the movie's budget of about $15 million, filmmakers considered other locations outside California, eventually settling on Ottawa, Ontario, where they could get tax credits totaling 35% of qualified spending. "The Call" director Brad Anderson had just completed work on another project in Ottawa and had recommended the city.
They had already hired a local line producer and drawn up a budget to begin filming there when the unexpected happened: They got a call from the California Film Commission in March 2012, informing them that most of the projects had dropped off the waiting list. "The Call" qualified for a $1.9-million tax break on certain expenditures, including salaries of crew members, set construction costs, location fees, catering and other expenses.
"We were literally days from starting to put down a deposit," said Michael Helfant, who produced the movie with Robert Stein, co-chief executive of Troika Pictures. "I said, 'Are you serious?' We need to make a decision and this could have a dramatic effect on what we do."
After negotiating a deal with Berry, who as it turns out wanted to remain in L.A., Helfant and Stein opted to switch gears and move the production back to their home turf.
"We always wanted to film in L.A.," said Helfant, a former president of Marvel Studios. Because of the credit, he said, "north of $10 million stayed in L.A. — instead of being dropped in Canada."
The decision was welcomed by local film industry promoters, who've grown accustomed to seeing many feature films, including virtually all big studio movies, leave California to shoot in places such as North Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia and New Mexico. Unlike most other states, California's tax-credit program excludes movies with budgets of $75 million or more.
"We were very pleased we were able to get a film here when it was one foot out the door," said Amy Lemisch, director of the California Film Commission. "It certainly has a very big impact on the economy of L.A."
The Film Commission helped secured some locations for the film, including working with Caltrans to coordinate the closure of California 103/47 in Long Beach for car chase scenes.
Filmed over 25 days last July and August, producers shot some scenes at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch near Santa Clarita. The crew of about 120 people also filmed along the 170 Highway, at the Burbank Town Center and at buildings in downtown L.A.
They also converted a two-story office building in Westlake Village into a 911 emergency dispatch center. They filmed car trunk scenes inside the building, using automobile sections cut from a Toyota Camry and several other cars.
Helfant was glad to stay close to home, but isn't sure when he'll be back in L.A. He is preparing to shoot his next two movies outside of California, including North Carolina, where filmmakers don't have to enter a lottery for their projects.
"The economics are so tough right now," he said. "It doesn't make sense to make a movie without a [tax] credit."