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Film Agency Handling of Simi Bid Criticized

July 21, 1986|THOMAS OMESTAD | Times Staff Writer

A fledgling state agency, rebuffed in its bid to turn the Simi Freeway into a Sylvester Stallone movie set, botched a chance to convince cities that inconvenience is worth the price of keeping Hollywood at home, local officials and some film industry sources contend.

A month after the Moorpark and Simi Valley city councils unanimously rejected a plan by the California Film Office, the agency's representatives hint that their approach to local officials was insensitive. Sounding a conciliatory line, they say there will be no push to close the commuter artery if public opposition cannot be eased.

The film office had billed closing the freeway as a test of community willingness to make sacrifices to curb "runaway" filming, the loss of productions to other states that actively solicit filming.

Officials at the film office say the recent controversy comes at a "critical juncture" in efforts to accommodate films shot on California roads. They also say it points up the struggle to reverse public apathy to filming in the Los Angeles area.

'Losing Something Valuable'

"We're in a difficult position trying to convince the people of Southern California that they are losing something valuable," said Lisa Rawlins, the film office director. "On the local level, sometimes it's difficult to see. We're losing jobs but you don't see dormant smokestacks or bread lines."

The office, which has a staff of four and an annual budget of $349,000, was created by the Legislature in 1984 as part of Gov. George Deukmejian's campaign to court the film industry and retain its billions of dollars in spending.

Until the Simi Valley-San Fernando Valley Freeway clash, it had attracted little public notice while generally earning high marks from an industry that complained of bureaucratic tangles that made filming difficult in the state that spawned the movies.

The freeway episode, however, has raised issues such as whether the office adequately consults with local governments, whether there is any difference between promoting the industry for jobs and taxes and serving individual companies, and whether the film office or the Dept. of Transportation should carry the authority to close state roads.

Appeared Callous

Some industry observers also believe the dispute provoked the public's ire by seeming callous to the community.

"It gives the impression the industry is a bully that doesn't care about people driving the freeways," said Dan Slusser, vice president and general manager of Universal Studios. "Their heart is in the right place but their execution leaves a little to be desired.

"The film industry is in a very delicate situation in Southern California. We're very concerned about our relationships with the community," Slusser said. He added that the film office "must portray concern for the community, but they have shown a lack of sophistication."

The stage was unwittingly set for controversy when location scouts at Cannon Films of Los Angeles came across a nondescript stretch of freeway between Moorpark and Simi Valley ideal for high-precision trucking stunts.

The roadway slices through dry hills, free of palm trees or shiny office parks that might give away a Southern California locale for "Over The Top." The action film stars Stallone as a truck driver who competes in arm-wrestling contests.

Also, because the site is situated at the outer edge of Hollywood's "studio zone," a circle radiating 30 miles from the corner of Beverly and La Cienega boulevards, union cast and crew could be expected to get to work on their own.

Cannon asked the film office to shut down a three-mile stretch from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. for four weekdays. State officials quickly posted closure signs along the freeway, an apparently unprecedented plan to close a Southland freeway during rush hours to make a movie.

The reaction to severing the commuter lifeline to Los Angeles was predictably swift.

Moorpark and Simi Valley city council members angrily charged the film office with failing to notify them before announcing the closure and with strong-armed suggestions that filming would go forward, like it or not.

2nd Plan Rejected June 16

So, the film office returned with a plan to close the freeway for five days between 8:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. and asked the councils for non-binding endorsements.

It received unequivocal rejections on June 16.

"They need to go back to school and study some public relations," Simi Valley Councilman Glen McAdoo said recently. "They don't benefit the film industry one iota by doing this. In fact, they stir up more antagonism to filming."

The rebuff forced the office to try developing yet another freeway plan--one still in the works, according to film office officials. They say they will try to find other California highways for Cannon if a compromise can't be worked out.

Cannon spokespersons have avoided comment since the council votes, and film office officials declined to discuss current talks.

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