Stargazing at City Hall

Guest column

If the locations of “CSI: Las Vegas” or “CSI: Miami” look familiar to longtime residents of Los Angeles County, it’s because they’re shot here — in Santa Clarita and Manhattan Beach, respectively. But most folks would never know it from watching the shows. Getting that point across is a PR opportunity for Los Angeles that City Hall has failed to capitalize on.

With voters heading to the polls Tuesday for the mayoral primary, City Hall policies on local film and TV production deserve sharper scrutiny.

Mayor James Hahn has proposed tax reform to aid small productions and creative professionals. He recently disclosed the city is launching a Film Inventory Management System to encourage use of lesser-known city properties, and he announced the city has partnered with the Convention & Visitors Bureau to launch the “L.A. on Location” marketing campaign to show visitors what films were shot during their stay.

But there’s far more work to be done to preserve the city’s status as the ultimate location for film and TV production. At stake are 100,000 to 200,000 jobs, not to mention facilities and vendor services.

Having served for 25 years on the Los Angeles Film Development Commission, I’ve fought for years to curb the migration of film and TV jobs to cheaper locations outside the city and state.

I was one of three petitioners who persuaded Mayor Tom Bradley to institute a one-stop L.A. film permit office for the city, and we managed to convince the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to create a similar office for the county. These offices were later merged into a private corporation called the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., which I recently ran for 15 months at the request of the city and county.

Despite the efforts of these organizations, and the city’s first-rate locations and labor pool, City Hall’s approach to film production is not as effective as it could be.

Here are a few proposals for the next four years.

–Productions are getting billed too late. The city is so far behind in its bills that some productions are being billed as long as two years after shooting. At that point, though EIDC is prepared to make a refund, it may be too late, and the production company may have dissolved. City Hall should institute a 90-day billing mandate for city services like building maintenance, police, libraries, fire and park departments.

–Use of city buildings and facilities should be free. Under the current system, state buildings and facilities are free, but those belonging to the city are not, which has forced producers to do somersaults in securing locations and driven production dollars out of the city. The industry understands there may be labor costs, but why do we have to pay for the buildings?

–Billing of on-duty and off-duty fire services is out of whack. On-duty firemen at a film location are paid $64 an hour. Off-duty firemen are paid a little more than half that. On-duty county fire services are paid $100 an hour. Those costs add up quickly.

–Film permitting by the California Film Commission and the EIDC aren’t in sync. The California Film Commission provides permitting at no cost, but it’s not coordinated with the EIDC. On one occasion when I was with the EIDC, the state closed the Vincent Thomas Bridge and, without knowing it, we closed adjacent streets. It led to chaos for commuters.

Having city, county and state film permits coordinated from one office would be a great benefit.

–Local film and TV production needs a grassroots PR campaign. L.A. might follow the lead of New York Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Film, Theater & Broadcasting, which began airing a “made in New York” logo in the credits of TV productions where at least 75% of the production was shot in Gotham.

–City permits aren’t being enforced. If a production crew is parking in a red space, those folks should be ticketed. If they’re parked in driveways, they should move or be ticketed. Production crews shouldn’t block disabled parking spots. They shouldn’t do running shots during rush hour.

These adjustments to production policies don’t just benefit the entertainment industry. Because of the economic activity generated by film and TV production, the effect on the city economy of every dollar spent shooting in L.A. can be multiplied three to seven times.

The citizens of Los Angeles have not been encouraged by the mayor to appreciate the value of the industry. People don’t want a film company in their neighborhood — even though the only thing the industry pollutes with is green, and it’s spendable.

The industry needs to reverse that prejudice, and the mayor needs to lead the charge.

Parsons has worked in the film business for more than five decades, serving as president-CEO of Lucas Digital, president of Intl. Film Guarantors, president of the EIDC and head of physical production at Paramount, MGM and United Artists.

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