San Francisco working to be Hollywood North?

150 150 Ed Coghlan

(photo credit: Garry Knight)

San Francisco is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. And for many years, TV and movie professionals have loved it.

It has been the location for great movies like Vertigo, Bullitt and the Dirty Harry series. And TV series like Nash Bridges and the aptly named Streets of San Francisco were also filmed entirely on location in San Francisco.

The result was a bustling entertainment production center that employed hundreds year round and generated big money–tens of millions of dollars–for the local economy.

That was “then”—before the late 1990s when production began leaving California, enticed first by the weak Canadian dollar that help turn Vancouver and Toronto into bustling film centers. Since then many other states–43 all told–have enacted incentives to lure television and film production away from California. It’s been working.

The Milken Institute reported in February that California has lost 16,000 jobs–real, middle-class jobs. Milken said that this California industry is under siege.

That means that some people (and their families) move to other states to find the work, and the others who remain in California are not finding the work they did twenty years ago.

“Workers don’t want to leave California or leave their families behind while they find work elsewhere,” said Susannah Robbins who is director of the San Francisco Film Commission.

“We lost out on a blockbuster film this past year which was scripted for San Francisco, with most of it being shot in a state with a more robust incentive,” said Robbins. “By not having a competitive state tax incentive, we lost the potential for 46 location filming days, employing an estimated 125 per day. This was a loss of probably close to $85 million dollars which could have been spent in the Bay Area.”

Robbins did not want to name the film. But apparently it’s not the only one that is spending a few days to get the San Francisco “beauty shots” and then going elsewhere to shoot the bulk of the film.

“This is happening again with another upcoming blockbuster scripted for our city. We are losing out on more than half of their location days because they’re filming in a state with a lucrative incentive. We are losing out on more jobs, and an estimated $8 million dollars,” she added.

Robbins has had some “wins,” though. The HBO series Looking shoots on location in San Francisco. It means 129 jobs, 95 percent of which are Bay Area local jobs.

The series spent three months on location in San Francisco to shoot its seven episodes which translated into $1.8 million in direct spending.

When a production comes to San Francisco (or any other location in California), it means not only production jobs, but increased revenue for hotels, car rental firms, prop houses and other service businesses that benefit from local production.

“Everyone benefits when a production comes to the city,” said Robbins.

California Assembly member Raul Bocanegra is one of 60 legislators who are supporting AB 1839 which they believe will help keep productions in California.

“It will help keep productions in California, creating statewide benefits and revenue that will stimulate our economy and preserve the jobs that many Californians and their families depend upon,” said Bocanegra.

Local entertainment unions are backing the bill.

“My members are hurting greatly,” said Ed Duffy, Teamsters Local 399 business agent who represents many behind-the-scenes production employees. “The workers feel helpless. This a California jobs issue.

Robbins pointed out San Francisco is one of the few cities in California which has rebate programs of their own, in order to help lower costs for productions and keep jobs local.

“Qualifying productions are entitled to a rebate of up to $600,000 for taxes and fees paid to the city during production per episode or feature film,” she said.

Producers we’ve talked to are pretty explicit. “We go where the tax incentives are,” one said.

Are these tax incentives a good idea? There seems to be a lot of support for them in the Capitol these days.

Not everyone thinks the state should be in the tax incentive business for film and TV production. A recent op-ed in the Sacramento Bee by Christopher Thornberg of Beacon Economics argues it’s bad public policy.

It’s a discussion worth having, given the impact of entertainment jobs here. How California can increase middle-class jobs and improve the state’s ability to compete in the global economy is the focus of the California Economic Summit.

The Summit convenes regional leaders from around the state to work on ways to create and retain jobs in the state. What are some concrete things that can be done to improve the state’s economy? What are some things California can do this year to advance prosperity? Here are nine ideas.


Ed Coghlan

All stories by: Ed Coghlan