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County, Cities Seeing Payoff in Effort to Draw Filmmakers

A joint effort among state, county and city officials to keep Hollywood filmmakers from leaving California to make movies is showing modest but tangible results for Orange County.

Film-making is increasing in some Orange County cities and could double this year in unincorporated areas, according to figures released recently by the Orange County film liaison office.

At the same time, the relatively small numbers aren’t likely to cause Hollywood Chamber of Commerce officials to start crying “Exodus.”

As of June 15, the office had issued 16 permits this year to motion picture companies filming in unincorporated county areas, just one fewer than in all of 1989, according to county film liaison Lolly Powell. With heightened activity anticipated during summer months, at least twice as much filming is projected during 1990 over last year, Powell said.

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“It would be my hope that it would triple, but it’s been a surprise so far that we’ve increased that much,” she said.

Some cities--including Newport Beach, Santa Ana, Fullerton and Laguna Beach--also report that movie companies are becoming more familiar sights. In Newport Beach, the Orange County city most popular with filmmakers, 22 permits have been issued to commercial film production companies so far this year, an 18% jump over the first half of 1989, said licensing supervisor Glen Everroad. Most filming in Newport takes place after August, he said.

In Laguna, where 100 crew members and extras descended last week to shoot an NBC television miniseries, filmmakers have become regular guests, said Cindy King, Laguna’s director of recreation and film liaison.

King said the increase can be explained by Laguna’s quaintness and cooperation, adding that the city has simplified the permit-granting process to encourage filmmakers. Similar goals were on the table last month during the California Film Commission’s first meeting with both city and county liaisons. Participants are hoping the connection will result in a closer working relationship between the groups.

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The commission was created in 1985 to tether filmmakers who were being wooed away from California by other states. In 1988, with productions lost to other states still costing California $3 billion, a county liaison office was established to help tackle the problem. Last fall, film industry insiders and some local officials were still bemoaning what they called the “bureaucratic nightmare” of making movies in Orange County, a problem the county and state film offices have since been striving to solve.

“There’s still work to do,” said Michael Walbrecht, commission associate director, who added that as of last week, only a couple of Orange County cities have adopted the commission’s “model process” for film permits. By adopting that process, cities would have a uniform procedure in place of the myriad different policies, ostensibly making it easier for film companies to move from city to city for shooting.

However, Walbrecht added, in part because more Los Angeles neighborhoods are becoming “burned out” with constant film activity, production companies are increasingly setting their sights on surrounding counties. Cities that catch a filmmaker’s fancy can reap hefty financial rewards, he said.

While filming “Defending Your Life” with Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks in Orange County recently, Warner Bros. spent $200,000 and hired 1,000 extras in 10 days, Walbrecht said. Statewide, the industry spends about $5.25 billion a year and employs 118,000 people directly and 115,000 indirectly, he said.

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“This is a very clean industry that usually comes into your community, spends a substantial amount of money and then it goes away,” he said.

But not always. Just ask Newport Beach officials.

Three years ago, in one of the more ill-fated episodes in county film-making, a production company rigged a 46-foot yacht to explode in the Upper Newport Bay ecological reserve without getting a city permit, Everroad said. When silt clogged the water lines on the fire-suppression boats, the fire, scheduled to burn for 30 seconds, raged in the Back Bay for 40 minutes, he said.

“This thing was a bomb floating out in the middle of the harbor.” Debris dirtied the bay, cinders settled on yachts and ashes drifted into koi ponds and pools.

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“It was a mess,” Everroad said of the misadventure that took four months to clean up. “We had a bunch of upset people.”

Popular coastal sites include the Newport Beach piers, the Balboa Fun Zone and Crystal Cove, where portions of the movie “Beaches” were filmed. Laguna Beach was chosen as the backdrop for “Jackie Collins’ Lucky,” a six-hour television miniseries, because it most closely resembled the south of France, location manager Karen White said.

“It’s foreign-looking in a way,” White said. “We were looking for something colorful, something that had some character and something that had a more limited beach than, say, Hermosa, which goes on like the Sahara.”

In Santa Ana, with its stately, historic County Courthouse, generic stadium and recently refurbished historical homes, film-making “has increased tremendously,” said liaison Maria Schlinger.

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But not everyone in Orange County is seeing the fallout.

In Orange, the site of a 100-year-old traffic circle and picturesque shops that have provided the backdrop for films in years past, there has been no increase in filming this year, a city spokeswoman said. And in Huntington Beach, where marine safety captain Bill Richardson said scant permit fees should be appealing, there has been little change.

One barrier for filmmakers who might be tempted to venture into counties surrounding Los Angeles has been an industry regulation that prescribes extra pay when Los Angeles-based film companies travel more than 30 miles from a studio.

In addition, even when production companies are lured outside the radius and into Orange County, residents don’t always share the enthusiasm of local officials.

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With more than 15 trucks, trailers, busses and vans blocking the ocean view at Laguna’s Heisler Park on Friday, Al and Peg Difley stopped their morning walk to watch cameramen wave off cars attempting to park along Cliff Drive. The Difleys, who live a block from the the location site where crew members sipped coffee and ate doughnuts, said such scenes are no longer a novelty.

“You see they’ve taken the whole street,” Al Difley said. “Once in a while it’s all right, but not too often.”


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