San Francisco Is Out to Improve Its Film Reputation

Times Staff Writer

Until other communities started marketing themselves more aggressively to film makers, this city got by on its good looks alone.

But a reputation for civic indifference to the film business and increased “runaway” production to other states has hurt San Francisco in recent years. Only one feature-length project is under way here, and a new television show is the first locally based series to be made in five years.

In an effort to compete with Boston, New York and Seattle, which have set up centralized permit offices and programs to lure production companies, San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos on Wednesday signed legislation aimed at improving the city’s reputation--and its market share.

The new law puts a cap on fees charged to companies seeking to shoot on city property, and designates the mayor’s office as the sole department with authority to negotiate film permits.


In the past, companies had to pay thousands of dollars to a myriad of local agencies. A chase scene down crooked Lombard Street often meant weeks of planning and red tape at a up to a dozen offices.

“Every city department was trying to bleed (producers) to fill their own coffers,” said San Francisco Chamber of Commerce director John H. Jacobs, who credits the year-old Agnos Administration with being much more supportive of the film business than its predecessors.

“The only reason film makers ever came to San Francisco was they had to, because they needed a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge,” said Scott Ross, director of operations for Industrial Light and Magic, a division of Marin County-based Lucasfilm.

“The reputation of San Francisco was that it did not welcome film makers,” Ross said. “Not only was it a pain in the neck to shoot there, but also very costly.”


Los Angeles operates a one-stop permit center as part of the Department of Public Works. The center serves as a clearinghouse for all city departments that may be affected by the film project.

Prospective movie makers need only call the center and pay a flat fee of $115 plus the cost of any city services used, said Dirk Beving, director of the office. In most cases, a permit can be available within a day.

A proposal to create a film commission to promote Los Angeles is awaiting action by the City Council finance committee, Beving said.

Ross compared San Francisco unfavorably with New York City, where, he said, “you get one permit for free and all the police and fire protection you need, and they will close down the street for you.” He said the situation in Los Angeles is almost as efficient.

Michael C. Walbrecht, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-based California Film Commission, said that California loses $1 billion yearly to out-of-state productions.

Walbrecht said that if San Francisco experiences a great rise in film production as a result of the new plan, little harm would come to the Los Angeles film industry.

“Ninety percent of the $6-billion California film business is done in L.A.,” he said. “A big gain for San Francisco would only equate to a small loss for L.A.”

Robin Eickman, who heads the mayor’s film office, said most of San Francisco’s new film permits will cost less than $300 and will generate as much as $40,000 for the city to spend on promoting itself at film industry trade shows--something San Francisco has never done.


In addition, the revenue from increased production could run into the millions of dollars. Eickman estimates that each episode of Lorimar’s “Midnight Caller,” the 13-episode television series in production here, will generate $700,000 for the city.