The San Francisco’s Film Commission's executive director offers notes on new incentives for production in the city.
Imprinted in America's filmic consciousness from its leading roles in Dirty Harry and Hitchcock's Vertigo, San Francisco was once a filmmaker's paradise. Thanks to its wash of photogenic panoramas and cascading hillsides (and the presence of devoted local Robin Williams), celluloid was, before the tech boom, one of the city's most exciting exports.
Since her appointment last September, San Francisco Film Commission Executive Director Susannah Greason Robbins has been working steadily to bring large-scale and independent production back to San Francisco's streets, leveraging a variety of incentive programs, a new, shared space for filmmakers and a lot of old-fashioned leg work. Following the launch of the city's new Film Collective in the tenderloin this June, I sat down with her at the Film Office in City Hall to discuss the state of film production in San Francisco and try to figure out what actually happened to NBC's Trauma.
SF360: Let me start by asking you a little about how you came to be the SF Film Commission’s Executive Director. When did you take the position?
Susannah Greason Robbins: In September of last year. Our office was without an executive director for nine months; I actually interviewed for nine months. (Laughs.) I know they interviewed people other than just me, but my process was from January until I got hired in the month of August. Things were put on hold because there was legislation regarding a change in the makeup of the film commission itself. After that measure didn't go through, Mayor Newsom called me and said, ‘Are you still on board?’
SF360: Were you based in San Francisco at the time?
Robbins: The last six years prior to my job here I had a portrait photography business in Marin. I have 9-year-old twins and I was trying to work my job around my kids' schedule. Prior to that I had worked locations in San Francisco. I did that for 8 or 9 years, and I was lucky to work on a lot of Robin Williams pictures. He was always shooting in San Francisco during the ’90s, which was great. I worked on Jack, and Flubber, Bicentennial Man. [I also worked on] The Joy Luck Club, a little bit on The Game, and a little bit on Nine Months.
SF360: Wow, that's quite a few compared to what we see now. It sounds like a bit of a boom in SF film production. Did you have the films you worked on back then in mind when you set about trying to bring new productions to SF?
Robbins: Definitely. It was a boom, and it just kind of died off, I think, with other states starting to give incentives. Their incentives really took business away from California. First it was Vancouver, and then New Mexico, Louisiana, and New York....
SF360: Boston almost just went bankrupt offering huge incentives.
Robbins: That's true. And now you have some states and cities that are actually getting rid of their incentives, but there are still quite a few big ones out there and it really does affect how much filming gets done here. Because if you can get a 35 or 30 percent tax credit on a film, you'll go there, especially if you didn't get chosen for the 20 percent California state tax incentive.
SF360: It has been 20 percent in California for how long? Is that statewide?
Robbins: That's statewide. I'd have to look up the date that it actually started; I think it was in 2009.
SF360: Would you say that's one of the problems we face here, there weren't any city subsidies because of Hollywood?
Robbins: Wel,l for a long time, I think people thought, ‘Hollywood makes tons of money and we don't need to be subsidizing their films.’ But you know, when you see all these big productions leaving Hollywood and spending millions of dollars in Louisiana and New Mexico... Battle LA was done in Louisiana: They rebuilt a whole pier just for the production. How crazy is that? I think now they're beginning to realize how important it is to work in order to keep production here (in California).
SF360: So people are starting to see it. Can we expect the volume of films being made to pick up statewide?
Robbins: I think so. If they've gotten the state incentive they'll stay and shoot, and with ours, you'll get both the state with the city incentive, and that's how we ended up with the Hemingway and Gellhorn film here, because they got both, and it was a big savings. That was the Phil Kaufman film that just shot this past February through May with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. It's an HBO film and they were able to get quite a good deal with the city's incentive program. That's the main thrust of what I've been doing, marketing the rebate program. Because as wonderful as it is, not that many people seem to know about it. What I really want to do is to get the word out, so I've been to LA, maybe four times since I got here last September.
SF360: Tell me about the incentives offered here in San Francisco.
Robbins: The main incentive is up to $600,000 as a cash rebate on anything a production spends with the city of San Francisco.
SF360: I'm just imagining, but I'm assuming it goes to costs like police, rentals, street closure...?
Robbins: ...permit fees, payroll tax, up to four police officers per day, anything that you write a check to the city for is rebate-able up to $600,000. Productions which shoot here spend millions, so it's great for the city. But they can get a rebate of up to $600,000. So it's great for them. The Hemingway & Gellhorn film worked the rebate well, in that they rented stage and production office space from the Port of San Francisco. So all of their rent was rebateable.
SF360: With the port gone, does the city still have production space available?
Robbins: RIght now we have one hangar at Treasure Island that we can use and that very often gets booked out for other things, so it's based on availability. The Port also has a space at pier 80 which we used for Hemingway & Gellhorn. Right now, my understanding is that it is still available, but the Port would like to rent it out. And we're also looking at some warehouse space at Hunter's Point that we might be able to use in the future. I'm currently working with the redevelopment agency to try to secure that.
SF360: That's a long way out!
Robbins: Not really. The hangar itself is quite nice, and if production companies are coming out there are no looky-loos or anyone to bother them. But I'm trying to find more stage space.
SF360: Let's talk a little about the Incubator program...
Robbins: Which is now called the San Francisco Film Collective.
SF360: Which is now called the Film Collective!
Robbins: We called it the Incubator for a long time and they (the Film Commission) said ‘No, it's too cold!’ (Laughs.)
SF360: As I understand it, there are seven spaces available now?
Robbins: We have (counting)... yes, seven left, and we have four currently filled. There are two who have moved in, and two more who will be in within the next week. We're still accepting applications for the rest of the offices. It's a great space and the energy in the space has really changed since the two filmmakers have moved in with their teams. I can't wait for more filmmakers to move in there; I think it's going to be a really great space.
SF360: Had you considered adding more production facilities to that space? Like a green screen or a staging room—I know there are a few open rooms in the plan.
Robbins: There are two open rooms and we could put a green screen room up in one, but we haven't really gotten there yet, because I think we need to see what the needs of the filmmakers are first of all, and also if they would all be willing and interested in having it there—because that's going to be the shared space they all spend time in.
SF360: I've heard this is just a trial period--You have a real sweetheart deal this year! I'm assuming it's because he'd like to see arts in the building?
Robbins: Basically the landlord, Craig Larsen, is letting us give him whatever we take in each month. For Craig, it's a financial loss, but he's really supportive of the arts and very interested in having an arts program there. We're lucky to have such a great relationship with him. He's willing to try this for a year because he believes, and I believe as well, that over the next few months we'll fill it and he'll get what he needs financially. But currently, it's a loss for him. If we succeed in filling the space and we get to move forward next year, we hope to be able to give him a little more money.
SF360: What other projects is the Film Commission currently working on?
Robbins: With my role of bringing new productions to the city, I'm always trying to find new financial incentives to get productions here. We've just added to our Vendor Discount Program... a program we rolled out in January, which gives discounts to productions from local businesses that sign up to be part of the program. We have 85 San Francisco businesses participating right now. It's great because it brings more business to those merchants as well as providing a discount (to filmmakers).
SF360: So how large is the discount itself?
Robbins: The hotels are giving anywhere from 10 to 30 percent off their lowest rate. Most other businesses are giving a discount of 10 percent. Last week we also added some production services to the program. The complaint from production services, definitely from post-production services, is that people shoot here, but then they go to LA for post. We were talking about what we could do to keep them here. So I offered to make production service companies part of our program. We have 9 companies that are now participating and we also just added a discount from Virgin America for productions that are coming to San Francisco. We want to do anything we can do to knock money off productions' bottom line in order to bring them here and make sure their business stays here.
SF360: You've mentioned a few of other cities when we talked about subsidies and discount programs earlier, are there any other cities that we're ‘modeling’ after? Obviously you're very aware of what the other cities are doing to bring in productions.
Robbins: New York City has been the one I've been looking to, because even before I started this job I was looking at various other city websites to see what they offered and theirs impressed me—actually that's where I got the vendor discount program. I thought, ‘Oh, that's great,’ and in addition to that, they also have an incredible state tax incentive, plus they have a city tax incentive, and the vendor discount on top! So yes, I would say I look to them to see what they're doing, what we could be doing, and I assess it and say, ‘Hey we can do that... can we do better?’
SF360: Obviously you've got your eye on independent film a bit with the Film Collective, what kind of future do you see for San Francisco in terms of film? Going forward, of course you'd like to see more of everything, but are you seeing independent film as being a larger part of that landscape?
Robbins: I would like it to be a larger part. While I want all size films here, I think that our rebate program could benefit smaller independent productions even more than multi- million dollar feature films. I went to Sundance this past year to try to attract more independent films to San Francisco and got the word out to a lot of filmmakers who didn't know about our rebate program. I really think that we could be even more of a hub for independent film than we are now.
The San Francisco Film Office is still accepting applications for the remaining slots in the Film Collective, interested filmmakers can contact their office at any time for a walkthrough or application. Further information on the Commission, Collective, and SF's incentive programs can be found on the Commission's website, filmsf.org.
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