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North Bay, California film industry bounces back with production bookings, tax incentives

The last scene in the 2000 blockbuster hit “Cast Away,” starring Tom Hanks as a FedEx executive stranded on a deserted island, shows a distinct fork in the road that tells us everything today about the multi-billion-dollar American film industry climbing out of the coronavirus crisis.

Hanks, after being rescued after his four years on the island, must decide which road to take to start a new chapter of his life. The film industry faces its own crossroads: Where will it place productions, and will it continue to get support from government in the form of tax credits?

To North Bay and California insiders who agree the industry is on the path to full recovery from the pandemic, the road home to success involves more streaming services. The film industry last year had $4.48 billion in U.S. and Canadian box office receipts, according to Statista.

Statistic: Box office revenue in the United States and Canada from 1980 to 2021 (in billion U.S. dollars) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

It also will deliver a high demand for more content, more sound stages, more state tax incentives and more interest among movie buffs starved for their favorite candy- or popcorn-induced escape from our harsh reality.

“This is one of the most resilient industries. We’re uniquely positioned to come back more quickly than many other sectors out there,” California Film Commission Executive Director Colleen Bell told the North Bay Business Journal.

“We’ve learned a lot from this experience.”

Today’s big-budget feature films add up to huge returns for California’s area governments and businesses. Produced by Fox/Disney in 2019, “Ford vs Ferrari” starring Matt Damon and shot throughout Southern California cost the state $14.8 million in tax credits but amounted to $114.5 million in total expenditures in the area.

With a spectacular backdrop of Lake Tahoe, this year’s “Top Gun: Maverick” hoisted spending in California to $173.5 million. Tax credits cost less than a third of that amount.

Since shooting began again throughout the state in June, it’s been a “slow and steady” climb to return to 2019 levels.

Key to the recovery for the state has been an extension by Gov. Gavin Newsom of the California Film and Television Tax Credit, which launched in 2014 with then-Gov. Jerry Brown to keep film shoots in the state by offering tax benefits of up to 25%, depending on the type of production.

Because of the $330 million the state has allocated annually in tax credits for the film industry, it’s estimated $21.9 billion in economic output was generated between 2015 and 2020, according to a 2022 report created by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation.

The law introduced by Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada, as California Senate Bill 144, sunsets in 2025.

The state Film Commission is advocating for the program to remain permanent to compete with about 30 states vying for the income stream. The report suggests about half the projects that sought the state tax credits but were turned down, left the state, leaving $1 billion in overall production spending for everything from hospitality purchases to supply receipts off the table for California.

In addition, state and local governments have gained $961.5 million collected between 2015 and 2020, the report notes.

As a benchmark in the 30-square-mile sphere of influence for the film industry, Hollywood production shoot days doubled in 2021. They surged 141% from 2020 levels to more than 10,000 spread over a variety of film crews statewide.

And this is precisely what the area-specific film commissions and promotional entities have in mind with wooing productions to their regions.

Sonoma County’s storied history of filmmaking

When asked if COVID-19 was a film, how would it end, Sonoma County Film Commission Officer Lauren Cartwright said: “It feels like it’s never ending,”

In respect to production shoots in the Wine Country, Cartwright pointed out the industry is already “very cyclical” with the seasons. Film crews often seek bucolic outdoor, farm settings with barns, in particular. She fielded recent inquiries for places with three waterfalls.

“That was interesting since we’re in a drought,” she said.

Sonoma County has a long history with the film industry, dating as far back as the movie “Salomy Jane” filmed in Monte Rio and released in 1914. Sixty-four years later, “The Magic of Lassie” was shot on location in Healdsburg.

As for blockbusters, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” was shot at the Charles M. Schultz–Sonoma County Airport and released in 1963, along with “The Birds” of Bodega Bay from the same year. In 1973, “American Graffiti” was on location in Petaluma

In respect to the television world, the somewhat dark Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” set at a Sebastopol school dealing with teen suicide ran from 2017 to 2020 and lit up the local economies in Sonoma, Contra Costa, Marin and Solano counties with $21.9 million in spending, when it was shot. Over half that constituted local spending on wages, according to the state Film Commission-endorsed report.

Big cinematic opportunities on Mare Island

Within Solano County, film production companies may receive a 5% cash rebate on local spending for items, ranging from flowers and hardware to catering and dry cleaning on shoots that fall under the auspices of Film Mare Island. The nonprofit entity was created in 2016 to promote productions at the former U.S. Navy base in Vallejo.

The shoots on Mare Island use facilities managed by Cinelease, an industry supplier of equipment and leasing space that was formed in 1977 by its $2.3 billion parent company, Herc Rentals headquartered in Bonita Springs, Florida.

Through the efforts of Cinelease coordinating with Film Mare Island, the island has hosted many projects, from a “Venom” sequel to the “Nash Bridges” television show. The island touts a million square feet of outdoor space available for filming, along with 200,000 square feet of sound stages in cavernous warehouses on site.

When the pandemic hit and the shutdowns ensued, the entertainment division of the heavy equipment rental firm pivoted quickly by leasing forklifts and other heavy equipment to Factory_OS, a Mare Island neighbor making prefabricated homes.

The change in business strategy took the company through the end last year.

“We went dark the first two months and weren’t booking in this period of time,” Director of Studio Development Mark Walter said, referring to the year and half period in which COVID-19 was rampant.

For the past five years, Cinelease Studios has provided space and equipment for productions such as the “Bumblebee” film, the sixth installment released in 2018 as part of the Transformer movie series.

“This is where the robot battle took place,” he said, pointing from the golf cart to the historic district of the island. “They wanted this for the historic dry dock.”

For each production, he said, there are different requests.

In making this year’s coming-of-age movie “Fairyland,” producer and co-writer Sofia Coppola sought the surroundings of one of the empty historic estate homes found on the island. Those bookings come with “certain requirements” that maintain the integrity of the historic structures, Walter indicated.

Sometimes, more unconventional needs are met in the warehouse space.

The company is providing space for the building of the George Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts, Walter pointed out on a tour. The museum will be assembled in Los Angeles Exposition Park and will encompass artworks, including paintings, sculptures, murals, photography, comic art, book and magazine illustrations as well as film.

The project, which is kept under wraps, is being managed by Kreysler & Associates, a fabrication company based in American Canyon.

Movies in Marin

For those who promote the industry in Marin County, there’s a noticeable difference between activity in 2020 and now as well.

That includes the Marin Convention & Visitors Bureau, which includes a film office.

“I think the industry is still in recovery mode compared to pre-pandemic times, but definitely, it is picking up. Just in the last month specifically, we have received more inquiries for locations and in a wider variety of requests,” said Deborah Albre, the bureau’s creative services director and film liaison.

She added location scouts gravitate toward the “green hills and wildflowers” that pop in film and television. TV commercials make up a great concentration of shoots.

“The majority of Marin location inquiries are normally used for car commercials, corporate video commercials, and catalog and wedding photography, so I am hoping this is a good sign of better times to come,” she said.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture, as well as banking and finance. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com.

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