Oakland Film Center must vacate former Army base to make room for new development

Tim Ranahan contemplates the Film Center's future in front of the center's soggy warehouses.

Tim Ranahan contemplates the Film Center's future in front of the center's soggy warehouses.

On a rainy Friday afternoon, Andrew Lewis is patrolling the crammed, dark aisles of his warehouse. “In this business,” he says, stopping in front of a few faux-phonebooths, “you just acquire stuff.”

In close quarters with the booths, under the orange sodium lights hung high from the dark wood rafters, are street signs from The Matrix sequels, a hollow jukebox from Milk, plaster radiators from RENT, and stacks of fake lobster traps from the recent Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman HBO film Hemmingway & Gellhorn. Leftovers from 30 years of productions fill the warehouse because, Lewis says, you never know what you’ll use again.

The jumbled, flooded prop warehouse.

The jumbled, flooded prop warehouse.

The building is packed to its crumbling roof with recognizable household objects mimicked in plaster, plastic and other lightweight materials. It smells of sawdust and the musk of aging wood. Through the front door is a dormant construction workspace populated with band and table saws, sanders and stacks of lumber. Beyond this are the long, 15-foot-tall racks of storage, looming in the half-dark as the patter of rain on the roof and the drip of water on the floor echoes through the space.

As he moves down the aisles, Lewis checks dozens of buckets, strategically set under leaks throughout the old building, which by noon are already half-full of rainwater. “In spite of this being a cold, leaky, rat-infested building, we still want to be here,” he says.

The Prophouse, Lewis’ prop construction and rental business, is one of the 32 independent companies operating at the site of the old Oakland Army base that make up The Oakland Film Center—an industry experiment now facing an abrupt end. In early October, the film center as a group was given a 90-day eviction notice by the City Administrator’s Office. After eight years in operation, they have to be out by January 31, 2013, to make way for a new development—a state of the art shipping, packaging and logistics facility capable of moving shipping containers from ships docked at the port directly onto railcars.

Shipping containers and warehouses seen from the doorway of the prophouse.

Shipping containers and warehouses seen from the doorway of the prophouse.

Now the tenants are scrambling to secure new premises. While members of the center expected the move, they also expected to be able to stay another six months, says Lewis. They also expected to be approached by the city well before eviction to carry out a cooperative search for a suitable new home for the center.

“We just feel we have not been treated appropriately by those involved,” says Lewis.

On such short notice, Lewis says tenants’ disparate needs make it unlikely the 32 businesses will be able to move somewhere together. Apart, he says, they’ll lose their greater value to Oakland and to the Bay Area as an attractor of film production.

Established in 2004, the Oakland Film Center is a dense community of film-related businesses that fill the aging Army warehouses at the base of the Bay Bridge. Most days, the Film Center is alive with the roar of welders building lighting racks, the whine of saws from the prophouses and the constant coming and going of film crews picking up and dropping off equipment rented from businesses at the center.

Movies aren’t filmed at the Oakland Film Center. In its warehouses, you won’t find actors in the choreographed sparring of action scenes, lovers under the fake rain of romance scenes or extras crammed into crowd scenes. The center is responsible largely for the more invisible side of making movies. These shops provide a wide array of support services to productions that visit the Bay Area, from building the props and sets for films like The Pursuit of Happyness and TV shows like Monk to renting out the generators, costume racks and folding chairs used on the other side of the camera.

Outhouse Production's professional stencil sits in the props warehouse.

Outhouse Production’s professional stencil sits in the props warehouse.

“A film production is really a floating city,” says Sean House, another propmaster whose Outhouse Productions shares a warehouse with Lewis. On the rainy Friday morning, House is waiting for a delivery of construction materials to the Film Center. He’ll be doing prop work later that day in the North Bay for a “tentpole” feature—the industry term for high-budget, big-expectation movies released on Christmas, July 4 or Memorial Day.

“We’re doing special effects and models,” he says. Then his professional, terse tone drops away and he breaks into a grin. “Blowing shit up,” he says. “It’s fun.”

He’s not allowed to give away the name of the film or who is producing it, but he can vouch for how self-contained any film production is. “It has its own hairdressers, dry cleaners, food, electronics and bathrooms,” he says.

The Film Center is a one-stop-shop for visiting productions. Having these consolidated resources, says House, has helped attract big-ticket projects like Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion, Steve Martin’s Cheaper by the Dozen and George Lucas’ Red Tails to the Bay Area, says House, who just finished work on Will Farrell’s new film The Internship. The Film Center makes the business of filming in the Bay Area easier, says House, and that attracts projects that might otherwise be filmed in Hollywood.

A gag hat created for a forgotten film shoot reads: San Francisco Snow Removal.

A gag hat created for a forgotten film shoot reads: San Francisco Snow Removal.

“There’s a perception in LA that no one else besides them and NY does movies,” says House. “Having a focal point here for the industry makes the Bay a more attractive place to film.”

Competing businesses sharing a common space is unusual in the film industry, says House, and the Oakland Film Center is one of the only places that has made it work. For example, while the multiple grip/electric companies at the center will compete for a single contract, says House, whoever gets the bid is likely to hire the competition in order to fully staff the project. There’s a kind of symbiotic community at the Film Center he refers to as “coopetition.”

A new, permanent home for the Film Center is planned as part of the new base development, says Assistant City Administrator Fred Blackwell. But it won’t do much immediate good to the tenants facing eviction, he says, since according to the construction schedule, no new warehouses for the Film Center would be built before 2017.

The initial plan for the development of the base, says Blackwell, was for construction to begin at one end of the property and move slowly across the land in phases. That way, by the time the Film Center’s current home had to be knocked down, a new one would be built.

But the plans changed in 2012, and now the army base warehouses are being vacated and torn down long before a replacement center can be built. The change in schedule, says Blackwell, has two causes: The first is a $242 million state grant for the base redevelopment that will be lost if the project isn’t underway by next December, and the second has to do with the old army base’s split ownership between the City of Oakland and the Port of Oakland.

First and foremost, Blackwell says early eviction was prompted by the fear of losing the grant money. “We don’t have the luxury of getting this wrong,” he says. “If we move backwards from December of 2013, it’s clear the buildings will have to come down by May or June.” In his experience, move-outs always take longer than expected, so he wanted to be sure to start the process early.

Blackwell also says the initially proposed phased development has been made impossible by the site’s joint ownership. The development was to start on the southwestern end of the base property, the port side, says Blackwell, and move toward the Film Center from there. But delays in port planning have forced the city’s hand in getting its own portion of the development started.

Blackwell now wonders whether the urgency of securing the loan and the more than 2,000 related construction jobs may have precipitated a less graceful transition for the Film Center than he would have liked. “The most unfortunate part is that the folks were surprised,” he says.

He now wishes he had sat down with Film Center representatives and made them aware of the change in schedule, rather than simply sending them an eviction notice. “Had I to do all over again, I’d want them not to be surprised,” he says.

Now, both Blackwell and Film Center staff worry that the center’s businesses may disperse to new locations throughout the Bay Area, or that another city might provide a new home for the film production hub. Some of the tenants see their unceremonious eviction as an insult, others are feeling the pressure of time constraints while considering whether they will stay in Oakland.

An action figure dangles from the light fixture in Ranahan Productions main office.

An action figure dangles from the light fixture in Ranahan Productions main office.

“When we got a 90-day notice, people panicked,” says Tim Ranahan, owner of Ranahan Production Services, which operates in the warehouse next door to Lewis and House’s prop shops. Ranahan’s business rents out off-screen film equipment like heaters, sandbags and walkie-talkies. “We knew that at some time between May and October of 2013, they’d have to start tearing down buildings,” says Ranahan, who got his start building craters on asteroids for The Empire Strikes Back. “Now they’re making us leave without giving us a solid idea of their schedule.”

After receiving the eviction notice, Ranahan has begun a negotiation with the city and is trying to push the move-out date to May 2013 to give the tenants more time to secure new premises. But finding a new home that will suit the needs of everyone in the Film Center is complicated. Ranahan says some businesses only really need basic warehouse space, like Dolan Studio Rentals, which provides mobile bathroom facilities. Then there are shops like Ranahan’s that need warehouses with office space—one part of his business is providing rentable desk space for film productions. Others, like Mcleod Special Effects and Rod Spencer grip electric, need a raised loading dock. And the Kjell Ness’ generator company, Arthur Freyer lighting and many others need roll-up doors to allow trucks to drive into their warehouse spaces.

Kjell Ness and Tim Ranahan stand in an open warehouse, discussing the Film Center's options.

Kjell Ness and Tim Ranahan stand in an open warehouse, discussing the Film Center’s options.

They also need a certain amount of isolation. “We’re not a neighborhood-friendly place,” says Ranahan. The prop shops need to be able to hammer, saw and build at all hours of the night. Massive trucks need to be able to pick up and drop off Freyer’s lighting equipment at midnight.

The current film center occupies about 65,000 square feet of space and tenants are paying 16 cents per square foot. They’re willing to pay more, says Ranahan, but the trick will be finding an affordable space that has the combination of amenities the center needs. Ranahan says new locations are likely to cost 20 to 70 cents per square foot.

“For 45 to 60 cents per square foot, we can get places with pretty decent roofs and facilities,” says Ranahan. “But for most of the places we’re looking at, security becomes an issue.” After all, the center operates 24/7 and deals in expensive equipment. The Army Base was an ideally secure spot, says Ranahan. Isn’t just isolated and fenced in, it’s also right next to the Homeland Security contingent at the Port of Oakland.

Ranahan is now looking into space at Jack London Square for his business, and other Oakland spots are under consideration, too. Maybe they’ll move east, to the site of the old American Steel plant. But Ranahan says the tenants are worried about the high crime rate off of Mandela Parkway. Maybe they’ll move north, to a warehouse across Grand Avenue. But Ranahan worries that being “upwind from the shitter”—that is, close to the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s Wastewater Treatment Facility—will mean odor issues. Maybe they’ll move into one of many available warehouses in West Oakland, says Ranahan, but that neighborhood offers little secure parking.

Maybe they’ll move out of Oakland. Other cities have already started courting Film Center tenants. “Alameda wants us real bad,” says Ranahan. “And San Francisco wants us on Treasure Island.”

“Emeryville wants us,” says Kjell Ness, the generator rental business owner.

Ranahan says many of his neighbors are looking at warehouses in Alameda and at the Port of Richmond, where 200,000 square feet of space is available for 20 cents per square foot. But as with most facilities, the Richmond space is only a good fit for some of the businesses, and isn’t an ideal fit for Ranahan. He says there is likely not enough time to find a home that will fit their needs as a group. “Many people have panicked and already made plans of their own,” he says.

“For us to relocate as a whole at this point…” says Ranahan, trailing off and staring into the gloomy Oakland day outside his office. “It probably won’t happen,” he says finally. “We should have been part of the plan for years. We needed enough lead time to get a new space ready.”

Blackwell agrees the eviction should have been carried out with more care, and says that his office is currently working hard to retain the Film Center businesses. “Oakland is loath to lose any jobs or business,” says Blackwell. “But in addition, the work they do actually highlights Oakland and helps to market the city.”

Blackwell has tasked the city’s Office of Economic & Workforce Development to begin working with the Film Center to find a new home in Oakland. But Ranahan says the communication between city and center is still not ideal. “They keep sending us properties they know don’t fit,” he says. “They’re not trying that hard to find out what our wants and needs are.”

The stress of finding a new home with little notice, says Lewis, will effect tenants’ decision to stay in Oakland or look for new space elsewhere.  “This business is a roller-coaster ride—no regular paychecks,” says Lewis after finishing his Friday walk through the warehouse and, one by one, switching off the lights. “We are month to month struggling. Any gap in that throws a wrench into the gears.”

Andrew Lewis surveys highway signes from The Matrix Reloaded and rolls of hand painted film backdrops.

Andrew Lewis surveys highway signs from The Matrix Reloaded and rolls of hand-painted film backdrops.

He lingers in the back corner of in the warehouse, in front of his collection of hand-painted backdrops. Once heavily used in films and now made obsolete by green-screens, they’re now only used by prophouses to fill the space behind set windows, he says. He made room for them in his warehouse in part because they’re part of film history.

“Now we’re all having the feeling ‘Let’s get out of Oakland,’” Lewis says as he switches off the last light and the warehouse goes dark. “We don’t want that feeling, but they have not been totally supportive of us.”

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