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Oakland film industry at risk due to budget cuts and redevelopment plans

on April 18, 2011

The Oakland Film Office and Oakland Film Center, groups responsible for attracting filmmakers to Oakland and supporting them when they’re in town, are facing separate challenges that together put the future of movies made in Oakland in doubt.

City Council members looking for ways to reduce the city’s $58 million deficit have recently considered closing the Film Office, the first contact between the city and film production companies. And the Film Center, a collective of industry-related businesses, is fighting to stay in the West Oakland warehouse space it leases from the city.

Closing the Film Office would save the city about $253,000 a year, although supporters argue that bringing films to Oakland actually helps provide income. “Moneyball,” for example, based on the Michael Lewis book about the Oakland A’s and starring Brad Pitt, brought $1.7 million to the city, said Sean House, owner of the film prop company Outhouse Productions.

At the April 11 City Council meeting, District 2 Councilmember Patricia Kernighan spoke in favor of finding a way to maintain the Film Office, even if it means taking money from the general fund. Kernighan said she got more than 50 emails from supporters concerned about the possible closure.

“They stated very legitimate grounds for keeping the office open,” she said. “It brings in a lot of economic activity to the city.”

With the budget crisis, though, Kernighan said it’s difficult to promise what will stay and what won’t, saying only that, “I think it’s less likely it will be the thing to go than it was two weeks ago.”

The Oakland Film Center, which works closely with the Film Office, faces an equally uncertain future. The businesses that make up the center lease space in a warehouse on the former Oakland Army base, and while they don’t rely on city funding, the city’s negotiations with private developers to redevelop the base have the business owners wondering if they’ll have to pack their bags.

The loss of both Film Office and Film Center would seriously disrupt the feature films, commercials and other productions made in Oakland every year. Since the 1960s, nearly 380 feature films have been made in Oakland, including “Who Framed Roger Robert” in 1988 and “Harold and Maude” in 1971. More recently, the Film Center has worked on “The Pursuit of Happiness,” “Rent,” “The Matrix Reloaded,” and several films currently in production like “Hemingway and Gellhorn.” Oakland had roughly three to five features filmed every year in the 1990s, but that has dropped off, and in a year the city now averages one feature film, four TV pilots and hundreds of commercials. The Film Center also regularly caters to car companies that want to feature their latest car model on the scenic winding roads of Highway 1 or the rolling hills of Sonoma County.

If the base finds a new developer, it now seems likely the Film Center will leave the warehouses it has been operating out of for the last seven years.

In a closed-session Community and Economic Development meeting in early April, committee members voted to extend development negotiations with Phil Tagami, the head of the California Capital Group and AMB Property Corporation, which also led the redevelopment of the Fox Theater. In extending the negotiations, the committee removed a 2009 mandate that the developer—whoever it is—make space for the Film Center.

The change drew a critical response from Oakland film industry businesses.

“We’re just trying to survive,” said Tim Ranahan, President of the Oakland Film Center Business Association. “We don’t carry a bunch of big finances behind us. We’ve made the $9,000 a month for rent over the past seven years to the city, and right now, we’re the best deal going for [Tagami].”

The Film Center business owners told the CEDA committee that the City Council voted in 2009 to include the Oakland Film Center in the development plan because it feared that without such a mandate, the developer would leave them out.

Tagami said AMB/CCG never requested the removal of the mandate. Nor did they withdraw their offer to the Film Center to continue a lease. Instead, Tagami said, AMB/CCG updated the letter to reflect minor language modifications like that rental rate was to be “market rent TBD” and that increases in capital and tenant improvements, as specified by the Film Center, would result in the increases in rent. Tagami said he thought that Redevelopment Agency staff removed the mandate to keep the Film Center because it would affect the valuation of the property and prevent the city getting the highest possible rent.

According to Ranahan, the base developer can use state and federal funds to subsidize redevelopment costs only if the companies that will rent the space are related to port logistics. Private companies like those housed at the Film Center would make the development ineligible for government money.

Tagami said he and other AMB/CCG representatives met with the Film Center representatives several times before submitting a proposal for development last October. After the proposal was released, Tagami said the Film Center did not return e-mails or calls until March.

“We are prepared to continue to work with the Film Center when they are prepared to do so,” Tagami said.

Ranahan said he’d talked to Tagami before 2010, but never about the base redevelopment proposal.

Ranahan, who owns his own production company, is one of 26 businesses operating out of the Film Center. Because the Film Center is a corporation of many owners with equal partnership, “we have to go over everything and make a decision together,” Ranahan said. He said he’s refused to sign Tagami’s development proposal until all the owners have a chance to weigh in.

Ranahan also said the 75 cents per square foot rent rate in the proposal is above market rate. The real estate market rate for vacant and new spaces in West Oakland currently lists 44-55 cents per square foot, which Ranahan said he and the Center would pay. The Center currently pays 16 cents per square foot.

A walk through the Film Center’s warehouses reveals rows of stacked director’s chairs, walkie-talkies, grips, lights, generators, props, and anything else needed for days, weeks, or months of filming. Sean House operates out of a 10,000 square foot warehouse that stores props for every kind of film genre. House helped build the overpass for the freeway chase scene in “Matrix Reloaded.” He also created a 15-foot pig for the low-budget production of “Chaw,” a movie about a man-eating boar that goes on a rampage through town. The sharp-fanged creature now hangs from the ceiling of his warehouse as a memento, along with various other film paraphernalia.

House says the army base is in many ways ideal because it is near roadways, able to handle trucks moving equipment in and out, and remote enough so that late-night activity doesn’t disturb neighbors.

House said if the Film Office, and its ability to attract films to Oakland, is cut from the city budget, then the Film Center would be directly affected. Losing the Film Office could make filming in Oakland less desirable, House said.

A movie filmed on location in Oakland is a microcosm of a city in itself, he said, and has direct benefits to city through permit fees, police officer overtime employment, and hotel revenue from cast and crew members — not to mention demand for local business to help with needs like dry cleaning and catering.

“Film in Oakland is an advertisement for city, and someone needs to provide these films with the production needs,” House said. “Still, every year, we’ve had to fight to stay here.”

Image: Sean House, owner of Outhouse Production, a speciality prop company, says he and some 30 other film business are fighting to stay at the old Oakland army base.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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