Get Out of Your L.A. Comfort Zone and Film in the Rest of California

Filmmakers need to leave the city when scouting locations

The California film tax incentive works for LA, but not the rest of the state.

cameraThe City of Angels and its surrounding countryside, mountains, beaches and deserts have stood in as “Location Doubles” for places across the globe. If you want to film an external scene in Manhattan (but your cast and crew are all in LA) and you know a street corner in downtown LA which looks like NYC, then it saves money to stay in southern California.

That’s a no-brainer and has been happening since motion pictures began.

But, here’s the thing: those of you with the major million dollar budgets (and even those of you without this), when you go film somewhere outside of the LA "zone," you always have a massive, long-lasting economic impact on the area you visit.

And that’s not just because you pay hotels to put up your crew, and crews spend their hard earned cash in local restaurants and bars, but it’s because the film commissioner in the area you’re shooting can use the publicity of your movie being there to attract film-loving tourists…and sometimes for many years in the future.

Take the northern Californian counties of Humboldt and Mendocino, for instance. Both have gorgeous Redwood trees, magnificent coastlines, country roads, idyllic small towns and are around four hours drive north of San Francisco; basically, in the middle of nowhere. Yet Mendocino just had a huge party celebrating 40 years since the filming of the little-known 1970s coming-of-age movie Summer of ’42 which was shot there.

People flew up from LA and over from the East Coast to visit Mendocino for the event (and you thought it was just about cannabis growing up in them thar’ woods, didn’t you?). This type of event is a result of the impactful legacy movie makers can have on areas other than LA for both locals and tourists alike.

There are 46 film commissioners across California in the state’s 58 counties. They serve as friendly facilitators, permit authorities, fundraisers, location scouts, movie marketers and negotiators of disputes between location managers/production companies and residents. If you’ve never spoken to one whilst you’ve been filming, why not?

“Besides the obvious economic impact that a film production company brings to a community, the promotional exposure is priceless to a small community.” says Debra de Graw, Mendocino Coast chamber of commerce chief executive officer and film commissioner. “The footprint that film production leaves behind can be long lasting. For example, to this day we still receive phone inquiries from visitors looking to stay at the inn where the 1978 movie ‘Same Time Next Year’ was filmed. Then there are visitors who delight in the news that they can actually stay at the location that was once used as Jessica’s house in ‘Murder She Wrote’".

Of course there are many other American states – and countries worldwide – that provide excellent incentives and tax breaks for filmmakers, but I’m focusing on the home of movies here: California. Mainly because it’s a home that so many filmmakers are moving out of, and I’d like to help stop that happening.

Charla Teeters is a film commissioner at the opposite end of the state to Mendocino, in the southern sand dune territory Imperial County (where much of Return of the Jedi was filmed), next to the Mexico border. Teeters thinks California’s current tax incentive just isn’t making enough impact.

“We have a ways to go in order to catch up with other states,” Teeters informs me. “What we have currently makes us appealing to smaller films, not large budget productions.”

She adds: “So far Imperial County has not seen a benefit from the tax incentive.”

Imperial County sees a higher level of filming of reality TV, music videos, commercials and more still photography than feature film shoots. This adds to the growing evidence that the tax incentive is not making a difference in keeping the blockbusters in the state.

Yet, Teeters’ observations are at odds with what the California Film Commission’s executive director, Amy Lemisch, said publicly in July, when the LA permit authority, FilmLA, released its 2010 second quarter production day figures for Los Angeles.

“The incentive program is performing exactly as it was designed to, leveling the playing field and keeping us competitive,” said Lemisch. “This is great news for industry workers and the thousands of small businesses that support film and television production in California.”

If that is the case, it just doesn’t seem fair that the tax incentive is working for LA, but not for the rest of California. Even if the majority of movies filmed in California are shot in LA.

So, how to fix this?

On drawing filmmakers out of Los Angeles, Teeters’ suggests: “I think a five percent boost in the tax credit for productions that shoot outside of the ‘zone’ is going to be instrumental in drawing productions out of LA to explore the rest of our amazing state.”

This localized tax credit would have to be administered at county level by local authorities that already provide other types of permitting services. If it happens we would see a “peppering” of movie-friendly states across California, identifying to filmmakers the places that want them to come and those that don’t.

Again, it would be about “showing filmmakers the money” to lure them in, rather than their first consideration being what lovely big trees they have for background shots.

But, even if Teeters describes her county’s 70-year filmmaking history as “more than just sand”, most production companies will still be thinking: why the hell should I leave LA when I’ve got everything I need right here?

Well, there isn’t one reply to that question, of course, and the slightly lame, non-business-like adage of “be loyal to your state, shoot everywhere in it and promote its diverse locations” just isn’t going to cut it in this money-saving world we live in.

The brilliant campaign website “Shoot Movies in California” repeats this mantra in a variety of ways daily, but has it really helped the cause?

Perhaps the only answer is a higher tax incentive for the rest of California [outside of LA], either passed by the California governor or individual counties?

This may seem to penalise Los Angeles at a time when so many filmmakers are heading to Vancouver, New Mexico and Illinois, but it won’t. People will always shoot films in LA, no matter what. But it’s important to persuade filmmakers that California – not just LA – is the home of movies…and that means taking a leap outside the LA “Comfort Zone” and exploring the magnificent, breath-taking scenery throughout the rest of California.

The California Film Commission has its easy-to-use film locations search tool “Cinemascout”, so you don’t even need to leave your chair. Go explore.