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California wants to win back film and TV productions, and not just in Hollywood

For years, the Golden State has been undermined by lucrative film incentives around the world. Now, both LA and San Francisco want to woo more studios.

golden-gate-bridge

San Francisco is looking to attract more movies that want to film at iconic locations like the Golden Gate Bridge, but that also want to stick around Northern California for studio work.

Kent German/CNET
This story is part of Road Trip 2021, CNET's coverage of the Biden administration's push to grow American manufacturing and make more things in the USA.

When I call Patrick Ranahan on an afternoon in mid-July, he's driving down San Francisco's Embarcadero roadway, scouting filming locations for an upcoming (unannounced) project. He pulls over to park between the Hi Dive Bar and Red's Java House, two waterfront restaurants nestled near the Bay Bridge, so we can talk. 

"My world is always out on the street," he laughs.

Ranahan, who's worked as a location manager on the West Coast for more than 40 years, knows the San Francisco Bay Area like the back of his hand. He tells me about a call he got that morning for a television commercial that's supposed to depict a cross-country trip in an RV. The shoot calls for all kinds of scenery -- forests, beaches, mountains, corn and wheat fields. Without pause, Ranahan lists off places, all around the Bay Area, that check those boxes: Memorial Park and Pescadero in San Mateo County, and Rodeo Beach, Mount Tamalpais and the Russian River across the Golden Gate Bridge. 

"You have the whole country," he says of the Bay Area. 

Though Hollywood has served as the film capital of the US for more than a century, the entire Golden State has been a backdrop for countless movies, TV shows and commercials. Lured by the mild climate, diverse landscapes and short drive up from LA, studios have shot a long list of blockbusters in the Bay Area, including Bullitt with Steve McQueen and George Lucas' American Graffiti, as well as Ant-Man and Mrs. Doubtfire. San Francisco-based Industrial Light & Magic, the effects facility Lucas founded in 1975, has also created visual effects for more than 400 feature films.

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

But in recent years, California's once seemingly unshakeable grasp on the movie industry has been undermined by cities including Atlanta, New Orleans and Vancouver, which boast lower production costs and often higher financial incentives for films and TV shows that shoot there. For California, the stakes are high. Filming is one of the state's biggest and most critical industries, supporting nearly 700,000 jobs and around $70 billion in wages. California has launched its own $330-million-a-year tax credit program to help combat the exodus, but it faces tough competition from other states and countries, where there are also concerted efforts to entice filmmakers.

"[These places] all started coming up with really strong incentives that would lure productions elsewhere," says Susannah Robbins, executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission, which supports productions in the city and provides filming permits. "Bottom line: Producers are most concerned about getting the biggest bang for their buck."

For California, keeping that money in-state is not only a matter of rolling out incentives, but also building up infrastructure in places outside of LA, like the San Francisco Bay Area, so studios have the resources they need to film there. 

"I'd love to be able to say, 'Oh yeah, we've got it all right here in the Bay Area,' but unfortunately, we don't right now," says Mark Walter, director of studio development for Cinelease, which has two studios in the Bay Area: Film Mare Island in Vallejo and Film Treasure Island near San Francisco. "A lot of that work is either in Los Angeles or some of these other states that have incentives."

Luring back productions

Film incentives, which vary state by state from tax credits and exemptions to cash grants and other perks, began cropping up in states including Louisiana and New Mexico in the early 2000s as a way to combat runaway productions that were fleeing to countries like Canada in the '90s. Toronto has long served as a stand-in for New York and other US cities — even the 2002 big-screen adaptation of the musical Chicago skipped filming in the Windy City for Canada.  

A study conducted in 1999 by consulting firm Monitor Company dubbed runaway film and TV productions a "persistent, growing, and very significant issue for the US." In 1998, for instance, 285 of the 1,075 US-developed film and TV productions in the study's scope were filmed outside the country, a 185% jump from 100 productions in 1990. This resulted in $10.3 billion in economic loss for the US that year, and led to more than 20,000 full-time-equivalent jobs being cut, according to the study. Most of those productions were lured by incentives in Canada, while a portion went to the UK and Australia. 

In response, several US states decided to roll out similar programs to help keep the film and TV business at home, but just not in California. Those measures ultimately resulted in major productions shooting in places that are far from Hollywood. Marvel movies like Avengers: Endgame and Black Panther, for instance, shot in Georgia, while award-winning films like Hell or High Water and Independence Day: Resurgence were shot in New Mexico.

Seeing these other states trying to grab a piece of the film wheel, California launched its own film tax credit program in 2009, providing $100 million in credits per year over eight years to chosen feature films and TV projects. In 2014, the state revised the program, increasing the amount of credits to $330 million a year. The third iteration of California's Film and TV Tax Credit Program kicked off last July, and is also funded at $330 million a year through 2025. (A tax credit removes a portion of the income tax a production company owes to the state.)

California's program has had a positive impact on the state so far, officials say. On-location filming in the greater Los Angeles area increased 3% in the third quarter of 2018, according to a report by the city and county's official film office FilmL.A. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Movies like Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which shot in San Francisco, can bring millions of dollars to the local economy.

Marvel

Colleen Bell, executive director of the California Film Commission, says productions approved in the second iteration of the state's tax credit program are on track to generate around $11.2 billion in direct in-state spending, largely offsetting the $1.55 billion they received in tax credits. Twenty-three TV series also relocated to California from other states and countries through the program, she says, including The Flight Attendant (which previously filmed in New York), Chad (which had been filming in Vancouver) and American Horror Story (which had shot in Louisiana).

"We have to improve and maintain our competitiveness," Bell says. "The entertainment industry was born in California, and it's imperative that we continue to provide the most competitive conditions so that we complete productions here and lure them from other jurisdictions."

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It's not just other US states that are trying to attract productions. Cities like Sydney, London and Budapest also have incentives and large filming studios. Pinewood Studios outside London is the home of the James Bond franchise, and two of the Star Wars prequel films were shot at Fox Studios in Sydney. Australia has also played host to Marvel's Thor movies.

While protecting the US film industry might seem frivolous or insignificant to some (after all, many audiences may not care where something is shot), it can have a significant impact on the economy, as indicated by the Monitor Company report. Sales from intellectual property, which includes software, movies and TV shows, brought in $49 billion in 2017, according to CNN. 

"[Film] is one of the largest exports this country has," says Steve Dayan, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 399, which represents workers in the movie industry. "Our economy benefits as a result of the good-paying jobs that the film industry ends up creating."

Beyond LA

Efforts to bring film and TV production back to California are largely focused on the Los Angeles area, but California's Film and TV Tax Credit Program includes an additional 5% tax credit for non-independent projects that shoot outside LA's 30-Mile Studio Zone, an area that extends from the intersection of Beverly and La Cienega boulevards. 

San Francisco also launched its own film incentive, called the Scene in San Francisco Rebate Program, in 2006, which offers qualifying productions a refund of up to $600,000 on any fees paid to the city. Robbins says around 26 films have used that program since its inception, including Blue Jasmine, Steve Jobs and The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Painted Ladies

Iconic locations like the Painted Ladies in San Francisco have helped attract filmmakers for years. 

Getty Images

A big reason California and other states want to entice studios is, not surprisingly, to make money. Robbins says if a production uses the Scene in San Francisco rebate program and shoots for 23 days, for instance, feeding and housing the cast and crew could put between $3 million and $4 million into the local economy. 

She says when the cast and crew of The Matrix 4 shot in San Francisco in early 2020, they stayed for a month and booked around 16,000 hotel nights. "When we have a blockbuster like Shang-Chi or Matrix [4], they're putting far more than that into our local economy, in a very short period of time. ... Film really does inject a lot of money into the economy."

Keeping projects within California can also be critical to actors and crew members who aren't able to relocate for long periods of time due to family or other obligations. Convincing talent to stay somewhere within driving distance of LA for a TV series is much easier than convincing them to move out of state to a place like Albuquerque, Walter says.  

"I think talent wouldn't mind relocating from LA to the Bay Area," he says. "I did it, and I love it."

Dayan says several members of Teamsters 399 have permanently left California as the film industry expands to other states, driven in part by the lower cost of living in other areas. But he notes that not only has California's tax credit program benefited people in the film industry by attracting more projects, but it's also helped restaurants, hotels and other tourism-related businesses and their employees.

"When we leave LA and go to Fresno or Bakersfield or San Francisco or San Diego, we're taking a large portion of our crew," Dayan said. "All of those things benefit the state." 

Post-lockdown production boom

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic forced film and TV production around the world to come to a standstill for many months. In its last two fiscal years, San Francisco issued around half the usual number of film permits (dropping to 361 permits in fiscal year 2019-20 and 263 permits in 2020-21) and saw less than half the number of shoot days, Robbins says. But because the Bay Area acted quickly to instate COVID-19 lockdowns last year and flatten the curve, it had a better handle on the pandemic than many parts of the country. As a result, producers from harder-hit New York and LA began flocking to San Francisco last summer for commercial and still photo production. 

Now with COVID-19 vaccines, film and TV production is back in full swing throughout the state. Robbins says a handful of productions, which she can't yet name, are slated to shoot in the Bay Area this fall and winter, spelling out a busy few months ahead. 

Further south, Bell says there's been such high demand for content that stages in LA are at maximum capacity. This has been exacerbated by binging habits during lockdowns, which left audiences eagerly waiting for the next seasons of their favorite shows to hit streaming platforms like Netflix or Hulu. Now studios can finally work on creating that backlog of content.

"The studios have platforms to feed," Dayan says. "It's gone from complete shutdown and unemployment to 100% employment."

Hollywood

Things are picking up in Hollywood and around California after COVID-19 lockdowns.

Getty Images

Fully booked LA stages can also bolster the Bay Area as a filming and production hub as companies look for open studio space, says Walter. Some big titles have recently shot at the company's Film Mare Island and Film Treasure Island studios, including the 2018 sci-fi film Bumblebee and the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. But while a handful of soundstages are scattered throughout the region, Walter says, it's not enough to handle most network TV shows or feature films.   

"Historically, folks will use the locations in the Bay Area, but then they'll do the stage work in LA," he says. "It irks me because we should have that infrastructure here."

Robbins says the San Francisco Film Commission is still exploring ways to "make film a more vital part of the city's economic reinvigoration" after the pandemic, which could include creating enough stage space to make it easier for productions to film in the area. But those options are still being discussed.  

In the meantime, the area continues to entice filmmakers hoping to capture not only San Francisco landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower, but all corners of the world. Ranahan, the San Francisco location manager, says the versatility of the city's neighborhoods and landscapes attracts a range of projects with stories set in various locations. When HBO drama Hemingway & Gellhorn shot in San Francisco a few years ago, the city and its surrounding areas served as stand-ins for places around the globe including Cuba, Spain and China. 

"What brings people here is that we can find a block or two of anywhere in the world," Ranahan says. "As I drive around, I can find it."