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Legends in Their Own Clime

film shoot
Shoot With a View: Director Steve Liu sets up a scene for his independent feature, "S.F. Walk."

You don't have to move to LA to make it in film

By Dierdre Woo

How many times on my way to work have I passed a movie production company filming in the streets of San Francisco and thought, "I want that." How many times have I stopped to watch the actor, the director, the gaffer, the grip, the line producer, the camerawoman and wondered, how did you get your fabulous job? Never mind that I had a film degree from UCLA and Stanford: Back in the early '70s, when I graduated, there was no film industry in the Bay Area and only a handful of Asians working in Hollywood.

And as the cost of living in San Francisco has since risen to a level second only to Manhattan, quitting my present work to get a job in the film industry in some ways looks more difficult than ever.

"Move to LA" is the cliched bit of advice given to local residents with celluloid dreams. But a look around shows that an increasing number of professionals are bucking the odds by making a living in the film industry while remaining right here in the Bay Area.

Robin Eickman is certainly in a position to know. The director of the San Francisco Film and Video Arts Commission, part of the Office of the Mayor, she's the person to see to secure a permit to film within the city limits. Her many duties include working with film companies on difficult stunts, providing police security and acting as liaison with the many neighborhoods to coordinate traffic and parking. And according to her, the film business in San Francisco is booming. Eickman's office issued approximately 450 permits to film thus far in 1996, and she estimates $100 million will be spent by film production companies in San Francisco this year.

But, she says, studio feature films are a small part of that dollar amount. "Most of the bread-and-butter is made by the small production companies making commercials, corporate videos and interactive media products," Eickman says.

The Film Commission Office hands out copies of The Reel Directory and Film/Tape World to production companies applying for permits. The Reel Directory is an annual directory of film and video professionals and services in the Bay Area. It has over 3,000 listings for ad agencies, crews, equipment, sound stages, and other nuts-and-bolts components of film and video production.

In contrast, Film/Tape World is a monthly film, video and computer media newsmagazine published for the professional community.

But helpful as they are, neither publication offers much in the way of specific advice on how to get oneself a chunk of that $100 million spent annually in the Bay Area by the film and video industry. Nellie Rogers, one of the owners of San Francisco's Spellbound Productions, had to literally invent her own career path to make it in film.

Rogers started out in New York City doing promotional marketing for HBO, but missed the outdoors and an easier lifestyle, so she moved to the Bay Area and sold advertising space for Viacom.

After she met up with documentary film producer Sarah Kerruish and TV commercial producer Peyton Wilson, the three women started Spellbound Productions. "Our motto is 'You don't have to suffer for your art,' " Rodgers says with a laugh. "You can accomplish an inspiring and compelling product with the process as inspiring as the final product."

The all-woman production company now makes documentaries, corporate videos, infomercials, commercials and PSAs [public service announcements], and they're currently negotiating to produce a feature film in 1997. Billings for 1996 total $1 million so far.

Rogers' take on the SF vs. LA difference: "San Francisco is a wonderful, beautiful, healing environment to live in. People who choose San Francisco don't want to sacrifice their personal life for their creative work. Here people can keep a balance and still keep a finger on the perceived pulse in Los Angeles without feeling estranged."

Is film school necessary to get started? Rogers thinks the best experience is hands-on. "We have a woman who started with us two years ago," she says. "She called us and said she wanted to intern. She was so good we gave her a job as a production assistant. She worked her way up to production coordinator and now she's a production manager. If you're good you can move up quickly.

"Go to local production companies," she advises novice film workers. "Ask to intern. Work on as many shoots as possible. Be on the set. See how many levels that have to come together."

video editing
Freeze Frame: Students try their hand at video editing in an Academy of Art class.

Patrick Kiwanek, director of the undergraduate film and video department at San Francisco's Academy of Art College, thinks differently about the value of film school training. He takes pride in the fact that the Academy offers students the most advanced digital equipment in the industry, including the Avid non-linear digital editing suite. "It takes five years to train someone [on the Avid] on the outside what it takes one of our students to learn in two semesters," he says. "Every semester of training here is equivalent to two years of learning on the outside. Production companies will take a receptionist and grandfather her into being an editor on the Avid. At $400 an hour, I don't want a receptionist editing my film."

What Kiwanek doesn't recommend is the common tactic of simply starting as a production assistant (PA). "As a PA, you're scattered around with no concentration," he says. "Drive someone to the airport, get the bagels, help in the editing room. I have students who haven't graduated yet who are already working in the industry--an Avid editor for Lucasfilm, a corporate video producer for Round Table [Pizza] Corporation, two character animators for Tim Burton [of Batman and Ed Wood fame]."

An ad in one of the local alternative weeklies reads, "Would you like to be a SCREENWRITER and live in San Francisco? Call (415) 789-7399."

The man on the other end of the phone is Sam Scribner. A professional screenwriter with two scripts turned into films, he conducts The Studio, a writers' workshop offering classes in screenwriting. He is also a faculty member at the Academy of Art College film school and has taught in the SF State University film department.

Frustrated with the way others produced his last script, Delta Heat, he decided he'd self-produce his next script, Whispering Pines. He also decided to get out of Los Angeles. "LA is too close," he says. "It's easy to get caught up in what the studios are buying. There, everybody is writing the same thing. It's different up here. No one is writing anything remotely similar to what anyone else is writing, and no one much cares how the latest film is doing at the box office."

There are many screenwriting courses offered in the Bay Area--the difference with The Studio workshops/seminars is the support Scribner and his partner, Pamm Scribner, another Academy of Art College faculty member, offer students once their scripts are completed. "The Studio helps you develop marketing tools to sell the script and find the literary agent who will believe in you," Scribner says.

Julie Oxendale, a graduate of Scribner's course, recently had her script, Memoirs from the Massage Table, performed at a public screenplay reading at the Cable Car Theater. Using the tools she learned at The Studio, she "pitched" her story to Jane Campion, director of The Piano--with whom she is now working. Oxendale is enthusiastic about the support she receives from The Studio. "Writing is a discipline," she says. "It's easy to fool yourself into thinking you're working when you're really not."

Shirley Ranck is another Sam Scribner student. At age 67 she's just had her first screenplay reading at the Cable Car Theater. Her ambition is to tell women's stories. "I see that beginning to happen--it's been a long time coming." She also counsels other wannabe writers to "dream big. Sometimes we regret that we set our sights so low. Yeah, it's hard, but so is everything. What have you got to lose? Even if you fail, you have the satisfaction of knowing you tried."

The Film Arts Foundation is an organization whose sole function is to support and encourage those who dare to try. Serving as a clearinghouse for independent filmmakers, it was started in 1976 by independent film and video makers who did not want to move to Hollywood. They got together to purchase their own flatbed editing machine, and FAF was born. Today the Film Arts Foundation offers production and post-production equipment, education and training, screenings, networking, group health and legal plans, a resource library, a videotape library, a viewing room, on-line resources, consultations, a grants program and the respected Film Arts Festival exhibiting new work. Douglas Conrad, the membership director, observes, "If you want a job in the industry where your professional life is insured, then go to L.A. In N.Y., it's the advertising world with its hustling, glamour component. It's a higher-paced community. The Bay Area is where individual expression is supported. The people are much more accessible here. People do make a living here--it's hard and not always easy but people do."

And how about working for the major studios shooting here in town? Do they hire locals? Mill Valley native Jenna Capozzi's job as assistant to the co-executive producer on CBS' Nash Bridges series would seem to suggest so. After studying film at UC­Santa Cruz, she went to New York University and completing the school's six-month technical film course. Then, a tip from a friend working in a modeling agency in the City brought her back to home soil.

"My friend told me that Nash Bridges was coming to the Bay Area and that they were hiring," she recalls. "I got the phone number of the production coordinator and called. And called. And called. Finally, I got an interview. It was a good interview. But it took another three months before they hired me. Finally, I called at just the right time. They needed someone to work midnight to noon. I told them I would do it--for free. 'I will work these two days for free to let you see what I can do. Let me know if that helps you out.' So I worked these crazy hours, cleaning up, doing whatever needed to be done. They asked me to work full-time. Then I got lucky. I was promoted to be the assistant to the co-executive producer. He knows everything and I am learning a lot."

The major production companies in the Bay Area such as Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope in North Beach and the Marin-based Lucasfilms of Star Wars creator George Lucas hire locals as well, confirms Lynne Hale, director of public relations at Lucasfilms. "Over 50 percent of the employees at Lucasfilms resided in the Bay Area before they came to work for us," she says.

Writer-director-producer Steve Liu is one of those rare birds who dreams of living in San Francisco and "making one feature film a year."

A graduate of the San Francisco State University film department, Liu knew at age 10, watching Star Wars, that he wanted to make movies. After completing five films as an undergrad, Liu was lucky enough to get a job on the shoot of fellow Bay Area native Wayne Wang's The Joy Luck Club.

One day, driving Disney executive Sandy Rabbins from the airport, Liu told her he was planning to move to LA She discouraged him from doing so, saying she thought he could make a living in the Bay Area. She then proceeded to introduce him to some people at Pixar Animation in Richmond who were working on a project called Toy Story.

The rest is, as they say, history. Steve came out of that experience with a second assistant editor credit. While working out one day at his gym, a minor earthquake occurred, causing a power outage. Unable to get to his lockers to retrieve clothes or money, he was stuck with walking home. From this experience came the plot of his first feature film, S.F. Walk. Another "break" came his way in October 1995, when Pixar announced to their employees that the company was going public and that they would receive stock options. Instead of buying a new car or putting a down payment on a house, Liu cashed in his stock for $30,000 to turn his script into a film. One year later, he has recently completed principal shooting. The next phase is editing, the part Liu really enjoys. "That's when I take all the pieces and try to make a film out of it," he says with relish.

His words of advice to newcomers? "Make a careful self-examination. Ask yourself, do I really want make the sacrifices, work the long hours and endure the initial poverty I'll have to go through to get started? If the answer is yes, then adjust your attitude and be prepared to work for free."

"Two hundred people submitted demo reels to get into the film department at SF State," he continues. "Thirty people got in. Of those 30 people in my class, four are working in the media business. Those are the odds. This is not a fair business. If you're a likable person, hard-working, talented and you can get along with people, you'll do okay. It takes 75 percent people skills and 25 percent passion and talent to be successful in this business.

"It's never too late to change gears. It's never too late to learn a new trade."

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From the November 1996 issue of SF Live

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