Film rebate funds bring jobs, cash and more to S.F. 

While the streets of San Francisco remain highly visible in many movies and television shows, it takes more than just good looks these days to attract filmmakers to San Francisco. That is why The City’s film rebate program needs to be renewed in this upcoming budget cycle.

According to statistics provided by The City’s Film Commission, the filming of TV shows and movies in San Francisco peaked in 1999. Part of that decline stems from the tax incentives offered by competing filmmaking locations. Most notable among them was British Columbia, which offers a 33 percent tax credit for film work done there.

To combat the decline of moviemaking in San Francisco, the Film Commission started its own incentive program in 2006. Productions can receive rebates on city fees, such as the $1,000 that filmmakers are charged for using a trademarked Muni logo.

All indicators suggest this program has worked in luring productions back to San Francisco. According to the Film Commission, there was a 26 percent increase in the number of films, TV shows and commercials shot in The City in 2010.

That business was more than worth the $1.5 million The City has spent since 2006 to lure it here. In the 2010-11 fiscal year, film productions spent an estimated $56.23 million on labor, hotel accommodations, supplies and other costs, according to Film Commission statistics. Some $158,500 was spent on city permits alone. Film productions that received rebates have spent $40 million in The City since then.

Such productions also create local jobs. Since 2006, the Film Commission estimates, 1,135 San Francisco residents have been employed in film productions, bringing in $12.5 million in wages.

Speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California this week, Mayor Ed Lee signaled the importance of the film rebate program, noting that he was looking at re-funding it.

But even with the existing rebates, San Francisco struggles to maintain such business — even for films and shows ostensibly located here. Take, for instance, the Fox series “Alcatraz,” which is supposed to be set in San Francisco and its Bay, but actually is filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, the very location offering large tax breaks.

Although the program’s opening sequence was filmed during two weeks in The City, Lee asked why a show theoretically all about Alcatraz is not really filmed on the island. The simple answer is money.

Due to the current state of filmmaking — and thanks to computer graphics advances first developed at companies such as our very own Lucasfilm — production companies can swoop in and shoot establishing shots of San Francisco that are later spliced into work filmed in less costly parts of the world. Although people familiar with San Francisco may know a fake when they see it, the vast majority of viewers won’t be able to tell.

Thus, it would be foolhardy not to renew The City’s film rebate program, and risk losing even more such business and income.

The program’s price tag may become a topic of discussion in the upcoming budget cycle, but city officials should not be penny-wise and pound foolish on this topic. The iconic landmarks of San Francisco will always be sought as a backdrop for films and movies. But city officials should do their best to lure entire productions here, rather than a few opening scenes that do much less to bolster our economy.

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