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Marketing the State's Virtues to Filmmakers

April 15, 2002|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the sort of pitch a producer likes to hear: an array of locations available for filming, cooperation from government bureaucrats vowing to make shoots go smoothly, even potential tax breaks as a financial incentive.

It is the kind of marketing that has worked so well for North Carolina, Vancouver, Australia and the myriad other places throughout the world that have successfully lured away big chunks of film and TV production from Hollywood.

But at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium last weekend, it was California making the hard sell on its own turf.

State film officials, representatives from 33 counties and cities and officials from some of the state's best-known scenic areas staffed the annual three-day Locations Expo to help persuade the industry to consider shooting in its own backyard before fleeing to cheaper locales.

"You can't take it for granted they will shoot here," said Allison Martin, executive director of the film commission in Imperial County, where Universal's upcoming "The Scorpion King" was filmed.

State and county officials, who in the past have been criticized for being slow to react to runaway production, agreed that the stakes have never been higher. This year Gov. Gray Davis proposed a wage-based tax credit for productions that stay in California, the first time a governor has gone that far. California officials also have been touting incentives such as free use of some state-owned locations as well as programs that waive permit fees.

State and local film officials are finding it harder than ever to compete because low-cost locations, especially in Canada and Australia, have become so appealing to studios seeking to tighten budgets. Canada's sagging currency has been hovering at about 62 cents to the U.S. dollar. On top of that, Canada and its provinces provide financial incentives and have successfully developed a skilled entertainment work force.

Upcoming major films shot in Canada include Paramount Pictures' "The Sum of All Fears," shot in Montreal, and DreamWorks SKG's Jackie Chan film "The Tuxedo," which was shot in Toronto. A sequel to the 20th Century Fox action film "X-Men" is scheduled to be shot in Vancouver, and Paramount's "Timeline" will shoot in Montreal. And directors Ridley and Tony Scott are involved in building a state-of-the-art studio on Toronto's waterfront for Pinewood-Shepperton Studios.

California's competitors were well represented at the Locations Expo, which is sponsored by the Assn. of Film Commissioners International. Canada and most of its provinces commanded a large part of one aisle decorated with miniature maple-leaf pennants. Australia, whose growing film industry has hosted such film shoots as "The Matrix" series, had a large booth with the words "Stretch your dollar further in Australia." Also selling themselves were states such as Georgia and Oklahoma that recently enacted financial incentives for film productions.

But California nearly filled the back of the convention center with booths, many handing out freebies such as packaged coffee from Santa Barbara and boxes of raisins from Fresno. Even Siskiyou County and cities as small as Fillmore had booths. Scenic areas such as Big Bear, Catalina Island and the Safari West wildlife preserve in Santa Rosa--whose booth featured two young cheetahs--also were represented.

"This is a very important industry in the state. We will be very aggressive to retain it and develop the business here. We acknowledge there is stepped-up competition by other states and countries," said California Film Commission Director Karen Constine.

Location manager Bruce Lawhead said he is familiar with most of the areas exhibiting at the show but comes anyway to say hello to officials from locations where he's worked in the past.

Occasionally, he said, he discovers an unfamiliar place that he can use in the future.

Conspicuously absent were representatives of Los Angeles. The Entertainment Industry Development Corp., which issues film permits and promotes local filming in Los Angeles, has said for years that it doesn't need the show, contending that it promotes poaching of Los Angeles production. Vice President Morrie Goldman said the EIDC regularly deals with Hollywood decision makers and doesn't want to waste $2,400 for a booth.

"It's a fading genre. The exhibit floor isn't where decisions are made. We interact with producers on a day-to-day basis. We don't think it's a good use of our money and staff to man a booth and hand out pens," Goldman said.

"We think it's somewhat disingenuous to support an organization that is helping open up film commissions around the world and training their staffs to attract production. We think it sends the wrong message to support this trade show," Goldman said.

Maggie Christie, the trade show's executive producer, said the show has no agenda but is aimed at providing information so producers can make their own choices.

"It's really too bad about Los Angeles. If some of these small counties can afford to come here, they can be here," she said.

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