Commishes hit high-tech highway

As the AFCI continues to expand its membership, and military base closures offer unique opportunities for some film offices, new technology continues to be at the forefront of special concerns for many film commissions.

“We are all wrestling with new information delivery systems … which ones to choose, which ones to go with, and how to present the material,” says Leigh von der Esch, AFCI president and director of the Utah Film Commission.

“We’re looking to do a white paper. There’s a task force that’s been created to consider all the variety of systems that are coming to us.”

As most film commissioners already know, instant access in the form of computer CDs and CD-Is can dramatically streamline the process of retrieving and selecting locations from a film library containing thousands of pictures. Modem-equipped systems promise the ability to transmit pictures and resource manuals upon request, thus forgoing the customary practice of overnight shipping.

Because film commissions work with a production industry that is constantly changing its mind, speedy retrieval of alternative locations can create significant advantages for the film commission with instant access capability.

Recent military base closures are offering special opportunities for some film commissions and their related production service companies.

“You’ve got hangars as potential soundstages that they want to talk about,” says von der Esch. No longer needed equipment presents the possibility of adding to military prop houses.

In the past, one of the snags of working with the military was that they were highly sensitive about looking good on film, thus sending some productions scurrying to Israel or other countries with military appearance capability. Hopefully, closed bases will be passed over to local jurisdic-tions, thus skirting the possibility of extensive script censorship at the hands of sensitive Pentagon gatekeepers.

The role of the film commissioner remains providing quality service to the production industry, and sending out fast and knowledgeable responses to inquiries continues to be the foremost challenge for many film commissions.

Whether because of budget restraints, too small a staff or lack of commitment , some critical film commissions personnel have been found to be unavailable for long periods of time.

Consequently, response time to production inquiries, in some cases, is excessively delayed and productions are easily lost. It’s not hard to gain bad marks from time-pressured production personnel who demand immediate and knowledgeable replies while seeking highly dependable relationships with experienced film commissions.

With cutbacks in budgets severely curtailing promotional spending over the last few years, savvy film commissioners who have placed strong emphasis on quality service have come out winners.

Production professionals give high marks to several of the major film commisions. Film commissioner Charles Geocaris and his Chicago Film Office is a good example of building success based on service. The Utah Film Office machine gives the impression of a major corporation capable of handling anything, while the highly experienced Arizona Film Commission seems to have perfected the art of handholding while smiling through the face of exhaustion. The New Orleans office gains admiration by being highly conscientious and hard-working.

Over the years, Location Expo has borne witness to film commissions that come across as dabblers. Showing up in strength one year, some film offices have been conspicuously absent the following year. In some cases, an inquiry will find that telephone numbers have been changed, and that busy government departments that know little about filmmaking have taken over the job.

One perennial problem is the fact that film commissions are easy targets for cost-cutting.

“The states that tried to pick up some money by pulling the film commission into the economic department or tourism department, have tried it for about a year, and now they’re going back to full-time people,” says von der Esch.

States or countries that place a high value on the financial benefits received by the community have a tendency to feed significant percentage dollars back into the film offices.

This is, however, not the case with larger production centers like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

In the past, Los Angeles (the biggest dollar winner of them all) has turned to raising film permit fees as a means of raising money to cover increasing administrative costs.

Like any sound business, building a film commission requires a long-term commitment. The idea that American production companies spend excessive amounts of money when filming in a country or state — which can have a powerful effect on local economies — is not a good enough reason the start a film commission.

Seeing a new film commission as a quick fix for economic woes also doesn’t make sense. Quick payoffs are usually not forthcoming for many reasons. Competition is tough. Scripted locations follow trends or are all over the place. Also, location managers and studio production personnel have built up enduring relationships with highly dependable film commissions who offer a wide variety of locations backed by time-tested support services. And no matter how unique a location seems, it can always be found or duplicated in another area.

Film commissions are best run by commissioners who see their position as a career that demands timeless dedication and commitment. Finding the right location in the photo pile is only a part of the job. Being a quick and efficient expert at problem-solving can help dramatically.

But there is a law that exists throughout the production industry, and it is carried over to film commissions as well. Out of those who qualify and can give you what you need to complete the job, who do you like? And can you rely on them when the going gets tough?

Reflecting its continued growth, 168 film commissions and 29 affiliates are scheduled to participate in this year Location Expo, most in individual booths, others in shared booths and affiliate table positions.

The next big AFCI event is Cineposium ’94, scheduled for Sept. 24-26 at the Universal Hilton Hotel in Universal City.

“With film commissions facing such challenges as increasing marketing competition and new technologies, Cineposium presents the ideal opportunity for AFCI members to share information and experiences, both with each other and participating members of the production community,” says Barbara Shore, president of Shore Management Services.

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