Launching the San Francisco Renaissance

San Francisco was once the location for film and TV production.  But since 2001, its film industry has virtually disappeared, a victim of market meltdowns, local opposition to blocked streets, high production costs, and tax incentives in Canada and other states.  Today, most Hollywood and local filmmakers avoid San Francisco since it’s easier and cheaper to shoot elsewhere. New York City experienced the same problems but Martin Scorsese launched the Tribeca Film Festival and pioneered local studio facilities so the Big Apple still has a thriving film industry. Despite its plethora of local talent, San Francisco doesn’t even rank in the Top 10 filmmaking cities in the United States.

As a local screenwriter/director with family roots that go back here to 1893, I want to help see San Francisco’s film industry revive and thrive, especially independent filmmaking. What are the major challenges and how can they be overcome?

Hollywood fixation.  Like most film commissions, the City targets productions from Hollywood, New York and other major film industries, but these studios are usually self-contained. They bring their own teams, but hire few locals, so our filmmakers and film school grads must leave town to find work. The only solution is to cultivate our own film projects and studios and not rely on others.

Closed studios. LucasFilms, Pixar, and DreamWorks hire a few lucky animators and filmmakers, but are closed to outsiders.  I’ve met Lucas animators who cannot tell anyone what they’re working on so there’s little exchange of ideas.  Moreover, they’re busy given the competitiveness and low margins of animation work so they don’t spend much time fostering local filmmakers.  We can invite them as speakers and advisers to our projects, but they cannot speak freely.

Little collaboration.  San Francisco artists — filmmakers, writers, artists, cinematographers, sound designers, musicians, fashion designers, editors, actors, dancers, producers and directors — rarely work together and collaborate across disciplines. Often they don’t even know each other.  Each group operates within its own little niche.  But cinema is a team effort.  Local filmmakers must struggle to organize production teams, a challenge addressed by IndieClub, SF Casting and the Scary Cow Productions film cooperative, but they can only serve filmmakers, not launch major movie projects.  We need studios where these groups can collaborate on a variety of projects.

Lots of classes, but no facilities.  The Bay Area has numerous arts and film programs that graduate thousands of young people each year yearning to work in TV and film, but we lack studio facilities to produce anything more than small projects.  We’re like the SF Giants without a stadium.  We need studios with green screens, sound stages, cameras, editing studios and other production facilities that would enable local filmmakers to focus on producing, not scrambling to find equipment and studio space.  One approach is to find a developer who wants to lend incubator space to attract renters and encourage film equipment sponsors to donate equipment for R&D and marketing purposes.

Thus, the Bay Area has a wealth of local resources useful for filmmakers -– technologies, investors, writers, actors, producers, directors and marketers — but it is largely untapped.  Since 2003, the International Institute for Film Financing (www.filmfinancing.org) has trained filmmakers in the business aspects of film financing, marketing and distribution.  In 2005, Film Angels (www.filmangels.org) brought together local investors to hear pitches from filmmakers.  So we have all the critical pieces to revive our local film industry, but we need to integrate them into studios.

I’m promoting a San Francisco Renaissance in filmmaking — bringing together the talent and the money — so we create jobs for filmmakers and students entering the workforce.   Film could be a major generator of tourism, a $1.6 billion industry in San Francisco that employs 64,000 people.  A strong film industry could add tens of thousands of exciting new jobs in filmmaking, marketing, social media and tourism.

Shakespeare wrote: “All the world’s a stage and we are but its players.”  The Bay Area is one of the most visible digital stages in the world.  We just need to foster our actors to create great dramas for the world.

Sheridan Tatsuno