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O.C. Pays Price for Film Policy : Movies: Shooting in unincorporated part of county has gone way up, but other areas charging less are getting more business.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Gabriel’s Fire,” which brought the hot spotlights of Hollywood to Santa Ana last year, may be chilly about a return visit.

Nobody knows yet whether the ABC-TV series will be renewed next season. But location manager Geoffrey Ryan was less than heated up about filming again at the city’s historic County Courthouse.

“I’d go back only if I absolutely had to, if I couldn’t find another way to do it cheaper,” Ryan said. “Some of the county procedures (governing film production) are antiquated,” he added.

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Two-year-old state legislation aimed at keeping Hollywood producers from leaving California to roll their cameras seems finally to be showing some results here: Film and TV production work shot up in parts of Orange County last year.

The increase also is having tangible financial fallout. A year ago this month, the production company shooting Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life” in Irvine, Orange and Fountain Valley spent more than $250,000 on everything from hotel rooms to retail clothing for costumes.

But when it comes to rolling out the red carpet, the county, which set up a film liaison office in 1988 to facilitate filming on county property such as the courthouse and Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley, still has a way to go, some film professionals say.

“The county (government) itself has been trying to work to encourage filming, but there seems to be some reluctance to go as far as they could,” said Michael Walbrecht, associate director of the California Film Commission, which works to make communities throughout the state accessible to filming.

In 1990, the county issued 30 permits to film and TV companies shooting in unincorporated areas--contrasted with 17 in 1989--said county film liaison Lolly Powell.

In addition, six cities and the county have adopted the commission’s “model process” for issuing film permits, Walbrecht said. As of last June, only two had adopted the process, approved by the state in 1989 to make film permit procedures uniform from one location to another.

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Among the cities reporting more movie business in their back yards last year are Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Santa Ana. “Gabriel’s Fire” shot on two occasions last year in Santa Ana, which issued 32 permits in 1990, contrasted with 18 the year before, a city official said.

But those numbers don’t stack up so well against other counties near Los Angeles.

For the 1989-90 fiscal year, Kern County issued 45 permits allowing film and television production on unincorporated county land, a county official said.

In 1990, Ventura County issued 68 permits. (Though that number represents film and television filming as well as still photography, the majority of permits were for the former, an official said.) While Riverside County has only kept complete records for the past month, an official said filming has “definitely increased” over 1989.

And problems appear to persist in Orange County with procedures and costs for filmmaking, industry observers and professionals say.

The county charges $2,000 a day to film the courtroom inside its historic courthouse, plus a deposit that’s usually $3,000.

“That’s outrageous for TV,” said “Gabriel’s Fire” location manager Ryan.

The film commission’s Walbrecht objected to the amount of the county’s permit fee--$500 per day--for filming on any other county-owned property. He also bemoaned the fact that the fee is the same for actual shooting, preparation and wrap up. Some communities outside California, he said, don’t charge film companies a penny, and many in the state charge only for filming or at least a lesser amount for setup and for set removal, or “strike,” as is the case in Ventura and Kern.

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“The argument from the county is ‘Well they’re still taking up some of our property,’ ” Walbrecht said. “Our argument is that preparation and strike requires a much smaller number of crew and vehicles, so they are taking up a lot less of the property.”

County officials defended the county’s fees and policies. Charges to use the stately courthouse, built in 1900, are “higher than what most” other counties require for historic structures, admitted Bob Wilson, who manages the forecast and analyst center in the County Administrative Office.

“We want to charge something that encourages filming but not let the courthouse be totally used up by filming,” he said, explaining that the quaint structure is also used by charitable organizations for fund-raising events and by county officials for “semi-official” activities such as hosting dignitaries or conducting work seminars.

In addition, the courthouse is a “unique location” and, like the standard $500 charge, the fees cover payment for county personnel who must be present to monitor filming, film liaison Powell said.

“I’ve not seen anyone decide against shooting here because of that $500 fee,” Powell said. “I know the film commission advocates that there be no fees on property to encourage filming. But the county and municipalities have to recoop costs.”

County officials, who plan to propose that the standard fee be reduced to $400, also assert that the process for local filming has been updated and streamlined with adherence to the “model process.”

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Powell attributed the 1990 boost in film permits to greater efforts to promote as well as facilitate local filming. She joined a statewide program run by the commission to train film liaisons to the film industry’s needs. Membership qualifies the county for inclusion in a direct mail brochure touting prime county locations, she said.

The film office, a division of the county’s personnel department, doesn’t have its own separate budget. Funds for special projects, such as promotional brochures, are drawn from the county personnel department’s budget, said Powell.

BACKGROUND

California continues to lose movie, television and commercial filming to other states and billions of dollars along with it. California lost $2.4 billion in 1989 to out-of-state production, according to the California Film Commission, established in 1985 to stem this so-called “runaway” production.

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