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Manhattan Beach Takes a Step Toward Film Stardom

Times Staff Writer

A proposal to film a low-budget movie at Mira Costa High School that could involve several dozen students as extras may lead to a relaxation of the city’s longstanding policy on motion-picture filming, among the most restrictive in the Los Angeles area.

Mike Nelson, location manager for Cannon Films Inc., persuaded a reluctant City Council on Tuesday to cut in half the fees his company must pay to shoot scenes for the film “Undercover,” a drama about a police officer who goes undercover at a high school in North Carolina.

Cannon will be charged $750 a day by the city and must also pay for city employees--including police officers--who are needed during the four days of filming, scheduled to begin June 23. The South Bay Union High School District will also charge the company $750 a day, Nelson said.

Forced to Shoot Elsewhere

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Nelson said the film has a $1.5-million budget--about a tenth that of most major films--and would be forced to shoot elsewhere if the city did not cut its regular fee of $1,560 a day. Some scenes are already scheduled to be shot in Louisiana, in part because costs are relatively low there, he said. Mira Costa was selected because it resembles the school in Louisiana, he said.

“Film costs have been driven up so high that it has become important to spend less money on production,” Nelson said in an interview. “Filming here is mutually beneficial. It is cheaper for us to stay in the state, and it is a fun experience for the kids at the high school.”

In unanimously agreeing to the lower fee, the council decided to reconsider a 13-year-old policy, which, through high permit fees, is intended to discourage filming in the city because of the inconvenience it causes residents and merchants.

New Policy

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Councilman Bob Holmes, who along with Councilman Larry Dougharty suggested that the city staff come up with a new policy, said Manhattan Beach should join other cities and the state in working to keep the film industry in Southern California.

“There are many people--in Southern California and this city--who derive their income from the film industry,” Holmes said in an interview. “Filming can be a good neighbor to the community. You can draft an ordinance to help both the people in the community and the production companies.”

The city’s permit fees were set in 1973 (and have risen over the years with inflation) after merchants complained that filming, particularly in the downtown area, caused traffic congestion and a loss of patronage and customer parking, city officials said. The city charges $1,560 a day for shooting in most parts of the city, and $2,015 a day for seven commercial strips designated in the policy as “special areas.”

The fee for “special areas” is the most restrictive in the South Bay, aside from an outright ban on filming in public places in Rolling Hills, which has no public streets. In the Los Angeles area, it is second only to San Marino, which charges $2,500 a day for filming in public places, according to the Regional Public/Private Film Center, a group associated with the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

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In some respects, the Manhattan Beach requirement is even more restrictive than those in San Marino and Rolling Hills, because those cities charge nothing for shooting on private property. Regular permit fees apply to filming on private property in Manhattan Beach.

“There is nothing in the administration of these film permits that would justify these fees being so high,” Holmes said at the council meeting. “There is no justification for the fees on an economic basis.”

Encourage Production

Dougharty suggested that the city establish a “low-impact” zone, which would include areas such as the high school where disruption from filming would be minor compared to other parts of the city. Dougharty suggested lower fees for the designated areas to encourage production of films, which he described as a form of recreation. “I enjoy seeing films,” he said.

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The council directed the city staff to pursue the idea, but aside from Holmes and Dougharty, there was little enthusiasm for a policy that would bring more cameras and production crews into the city.

“In lowering the rates, there is not a problem at the school, but once you start filming in more dense areas, you are going to start having problems,” said Councilwoman Jan Dennis. Dennis said the council should consider the “nuisance factor” that comes with filming. “You can’t put a value on that,” she said.

In an interview, Councilwoman Connie Sieber said her vote to reduce the fee for “Undercover” should not be interpreted as support for a far-reaching reform of the city’s motion-picture filming ordinance.

No Problem

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“I am not eager to have more filming,” she said. “But as long as it is not interfering with the residents, as was the case here, I don’t think it is a problem.”

Lisa Rawlins, director of the California Film Office, a division of the state’s Department of Commerce, said her office will be making a pitch to city officials in Manhattan Beach to lower the fees. Rawlins said the film industry employs 230,000 people in California, most of them in the Los Angeles area.

“We are trying to re-educate cities to what the economic benefits are,” she said. “A lot of cities in Southern California have just shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘What’s in it for me?” It is a major economic stimulus in the state, and we are losing a lot of it.”

Other cities in the South Bay, including beach cities, have established policies that are designed to be more accommodating to production companies. In Redondo Beach, for example, city officials last year rejected a proposal to raise fees, which are just $265 a day.

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“The philosophical approach of the city is that filming can be very positive,” said Jim Graham, who heads marketing and promotions for the Redondo Beach harbor, where most of the filming takes place. “The city is receptive to companies shooting the area in a positive light. The films are going to be shown in movie houses around the country. We have no problem being seen as an attractive place.

“Someone sitting watching a film in the Midwest in the winter may say: ‘Hey, when we go to Southern California next year to Disneyland, let’s go to Redondo Beach.’ ”

Good Relations

City officials are planning a party for Stephen J. Cannell Productions, producers of the television shows “A-Team” and “Riptide,” to encourage good relations between the city and the production company. “Riptide,” which has been canceled by NBC after three years, was shot in King Harbor.

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Hermosa Beach charges $1,000 a day to film on public property and $500 a day to film indoors or on private property. The city also guarantees production companies that requests for permits can be processed within 24 hours. Industry officials say delays caused by red tape in some cities can be worse than high fees, especially for large production companies that usually can afford the fees.

Betty J. M. Werthman, director of the Regional Public/Private Film Center, said that her group is working to set up a “one-stop center” for production companies, which would allow location managers to apply at an office in Hollywood for permits to shoot in cities throughout Southern California.


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