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Oakland Media Hub Hangs By a Thread
By Doniphan Blair
Tim Ranahan, on of the organizers of the Oakland Film Center, at his equipment rental shop at the soon to be vacated location. photo D. Blair
Back in the mid-2000s, Oakland was gearing up to become "a regional media hub." The Oakland Film Office was headed by Ami Zins, who was aggressively courting features and commercials to shoot in Oakland. Then Zins and Tim Ranahan, an equipment rental company owner, came up with the idea of establishing the Oakland Film Center in West Oakland's old army base.
Their hope was that the OFC would eventually include editing facilities, a soundstage and a host of equipment, crew and service providers. (Full disclosure, CineSource started down the street in 2008.)
"Oddly enough film was—by unanimous City Council vote— to be a target industry to be attracted to Oakland," Ranahan, a North Oakland resident, recalled a few days ago. "It made sense in that no area has a lock on media—the South Bay is high tech, San Francisco has tourism and conventions, Napa is wine, but no one had a media center."
Emeryville of course has Pixar. One of the richest studios in the world, after an unprecedented 12 hits in row, Pixar is nurturing its own film arts community and is right next to Oakland.
Indeed, that was one of the reasons why the West Oakland army base was perfect. Plus it was a ten-minute reverse commute across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, where talent and crew love to stay and dine; it was cheaper then other areas; it had good security (ie not adjacent to any dangerous 'hoods); and there was ample space for set-building and grip truck parking.
Zins and her trusty assistant Janet Austin, now with the San Francisco Film Commission, made things work, greasing the wheels for indies and Hollywood alike. Indeed, Zins brought a half-a-dozen major motion pictures to Oakland, from the "Matrix" in 2003 to Kaufman's "Hemingway and Geldhorn" in 2011.
Car commercial being shot in downtown Oakland, location scouted by Wilson Wu. photo D. Blair
In addition, to fantastic location variation, from wilderness parks to blue-collar housing and mean streets, Oakland has the race, culture and class complexity to tell the stories of the future. It's hard to make gritty, earthy films these days in one of the Seven Beautiful Sisters by the Bay—ie Berkeley, Marin County, San Francisco, Palo Alto, etc.
"When Amy Zins and I came in 2003 and were brainstorming this whole move to the Oakland Army Base, she was doing it on the direction of the City Council," Ranahan continued, "We would set up an incubator; it would be called the Oakland Film Center and we will build a home for the industry in Oakland."
Unfortunately, Zins was let go by the cash-strapped city in 2011 (she is currently teaching and producing) and its Film Office was down-sized.
And those 32 film professionals and businesses that joined the OFC, including Debbie Brubaker, who just line-produced Woody Allen's "Unnamed 2013 Project", Freyer Lighting, with a warehouse of gear, David Lezynski, the camera guy, and Sean House, a prop and blow-things-up master? They have until June 2013 to vacate the premises.
"We are committed to [OFC's] successful relocation in Oakland," responded Jason Overman, the media spokesman for city councilperson Rebecca Kaplan. Kaplan, a progressive who recently defeated Oakland's old guard, Ignacio de la Fuente, is one of the biggest film supporters in city government. Indeed, her office penned an
Open Letter to George Lucas
inviting him to relocate here when he was having difficulties getting zoning for a new building in Marin.
"We were being cute but our city is committed to the industry," Overman explained.
According to Ranahan, however: "[Zins and Austin] built a city that people wanted to come and film in. Now those permits and film days are half of where they were. It has spiraled down to the point where we are not included anymore. We sit in a city where people say they support film but like the old adage: 'Easier said then done.' The doing something about it is missing."
Sean House, prop master and explosions expert, at his studio in the Oakland Film Center. photo D. Blair
Wilson Wu, one of Northern California's top location scouts, who also lives in Oakland, agrees. "I have a client that wanted to shoot at night in Lakeside Park [near Lake Merritt] and was willing to pay a couple of thousand dollars. We would have ended by 10 pm."
"Okay, a couple of thousand doesn't save our city's budget deficit... but it's a step in the right direction." Into "mixing it up multiculturally," Wu has setup more film shoots here than anyone else over the past 20 years.
In fact, over 60% of ALL car commercials in the United States are shot in Northern California, many under Wu's tutelage. His projects include the one that wowed 2012 Super Bowl watchers: "Eastwood's Chrysler Commercial", Oakland-native Clint's gift to the Democratic Party which he rescinded with his "empty-chair" act at the Republican Convention.
"It would have employed two Oakland Police at their overtime rate—the police LOVE 'movie duty!' [But] when I asked the park department for a permit, they replied: 'The rules say no filming at night in the park.'"
After the halving of the Film Office, which still has a message machine but doesn't return our calls, there was no one to make such special requests happen—especially in the short-order needed by high-speed film professionals.
Meanwhile, the OFC was suffering a different ailment. The old army base, where they had been happily housed in three, funky 1940s-era warehouses, recently became part of a billion dollar redevelopment project, including $250 million in state grants, to be managed and developed by the California Capital & Investment Group (CCIG) and Prologis, a port facilities builder.
CCIG, which is headed by local real estate czar, Phil Tagami, struck a private-public partnership to completely modernize the railheads and trucking, as well as prime real estate, including a two-foot elevation rise to offset flooding from global warming and to lay state-of-the-art telecommunications.
The OFC was never included in the army base redevelopment plans. As a collection of private companies, OFC was ineligible for public funds, according to Ranahan, and Tagami was loath to cover the build-out—despite the obvious fact that a deluxe OFC complex at the front of the property would have been a cherry gateway business.
Phil Tagami, the famous Oakland developer handling the army base, is not interested in having the Oakland Film Center there because he would have to pay the build-out. photo D. Blair
Admittedly, that gateway spot on Maritime Street might be better for a transportation company. A more appropriate OFC location would be the nearby Pacific Pipe property, on the divided and landscaped Mandela Parkway, which is owned by Maurice Kanbar, a film producer and theater owner, coincidentally.
Although Kanbar hasn't responded to our calls/emails, I'm guessing he or another local landowner—and there are a number of empty warehouses in West Oakland, some on large plots of land—would be happy to put a public-private partnership to good use.
Indeed, a fully developed OFC would be a better use of a small fraction of the funds for the Port, which will employ under one thousand people, although ancillary industries like trucking would include more.
"Oakland gets stuck with the idea that the Port is the future of this city," explained Ranahan. "The Port is important, no doubt about it, but it is not the future for the city, by no means."
Installing the OFC on Mandela Parkway would require a few years and tens of millions of dollars not mention creative vision and political will. Nevertheless, to have offices, edit suites, sound stages and shooting lots only a mile and half from Pixar, eight miles from the city and right next to the American Steel, art studios of Burning Man fame, would serve as a fecund foundation for transforming West Oakland not only into a media hub but the new Emeryville.
In the well-known formula: add artists and media professionals to empty warehouses, shake and serve.
As tough as such development can be on locals who get gentrified-out, if properly managed, with retraining programs, etc, such an art-industry synergy could be the economic miracle Oakland needs. Paralleling the Oakland Art Murmur, which has recently blown up with closed streets and tens of thousands of people, the push towards media and away from heavy industry and stevedoring would be a wise choice both for Oakland's kids professionally and for its culture metaphysically.
Sorry to say but this is probably not going happen—despite the fact that the Oakland Film Office brought in millions in rentals, wages, taxes and fees or that a robust industry could assist local schools like Youth Uprising media center in East Oakland which Ranahan recently visited, or that Oakland has the country's highest per capita of media professionals and artists outside of Brooklyn—unless someone starts lobbying, soon and hard.
"The City Council turned against us," concluded Ranahan.
Ranahan, who sometimes self-effacingly calls himself Rantahan, has a great command of the details of the possible ending to the OFC. photo D. Blair
The consensus seems to be—aside from the personal enmity between Tagami and Zins, when she closed a downtown street for a film shoot and one of his tenants complained—is that films folks are a bit too fly for the neighborhood organizers, of which the Oakland City Government is largely composed, even though Oakland has produced plenty of rap and sport stars, not to mention some of our greatest film stars: Tom Hanks and Eastwood.
Bending over backwards, closing streets, responding rapidly to phone calls and giving tax incentives is perceived, in impoverished but proud cities, as catering to the rich and the out-of-town—regardless of the income film generates or Oakland's vaunted multiculturalism, which already includes lots of wealthy in Piedmont, Montclair and the Oakland Hills.
"We're not shooting it in Oakland, of course," Wilson wrote me by email about his Lakeside Park project. "But now everyone who could have helped when it was crucial, now SUDDENLY WANTS TO HELP! [emphasis in original]." Evidently, Wu's letter to his councilperson shook things up. "I was told that 'It could have been worked out' without careless emails sent out to everyone," Wu said.
"We are fully committed to working with staff to make sure Oakland continues to partner with this important industry and enjoy the economic vitality that it helps to create," insisted Overman from Kaplan's office when I pressed him. "The City Council has directed city staff to provide for a smooth relocation of the center."
According to Ranahan, however: "City Council, over a year ago, put [our situation] up for a vote. They said, 'The two parties need to continue talking with the end goal of having a film center on the army base.' But nowhere publically has any one come out and said that is what they want."
"Some city officials have said they thought that is what was in there. But it is not written anywhere in the 1700-page development document. Phil [Tagami] has never come out publically and said he would built the OFC on the army base.'"
"We have given up. The last time I talked to him, I said, 'Phil, you obviously have no plans to put us on the army base. He said, 'Let's talk.'"
"We were told we could get an extension to June 30th of next year, we never got that. What we did get was a 90-day termination of lease—out by January 31, 2013—which is not enough time, as you can see by all this equipment everywhere."
"Once we secure an extension, we will have a meeting for the 32 companies to move as one. [If that is impossible] there are certain businesses that aren't location specific. The storage types, props, sets could branch out a bit. They wanted to push us towards the airport, where there are tons of places. The Richmond City Council has called, saying, 'We have the Port of Richmond.'"
"The problem is our clients say, 'We need this piece of equipment, it's five o'clock in the afternoon, we are going to come get it.' With us [at the army base], they just have to deal with one stretch of freeway. But if they have to go up 80 [to Richmond], it is a parking lot. And if you go down 880 [towards the airport], it's the same thing."
"Pacific Pipe, future-wise, may work. If Kanbar or any developer went to city and said we want to build a 60-70,000 square foot film vendor center, the city would bend over backwards, I think."
"I would prefer to be in the army base—this is ultimate location—[but] Pacific Pipe is a few blocks from a neighborhood, so that is good. Any further up Grand Avenue, you are into all sorts of residential regulations, you are limited in the hours of operation. We are a 24-hour business."
"Margot Prado [the West Oakland Economic Development Specialist] has been wonderful; she has been involved; she sends me leads. Hopefully, we will find a place. The sad part is we will loose something, as with [the loss of] the Oakland Film Office with Ami and Janet. No one has a media center. We had the start of one but no one really bought into it."
"I think Oakland still has the opportunity to be the media hub of the Bay Area, to have all the facilities right here, to be the center for live action, for commercials, features, documentaries."
"Stages are a toughie—they are not big money makers—but they are the key that opens the door to a lot of other services. If a company comes in and shoots a car commercial of their entire line and then they want to do stage work with a 40 foot grid, you have it."
"Oakland is a tough city. It has high crime—up 20% this year—their police are in disarray. It is a tough city to show in a light that people will say, 'Let's move to Oakland!' But it could happen. Look at the art movement. Oakland has become the preferred spot for a lot of artistic people to set up shop."
At this point, Ranahan starts to touch on a point that can be prickly, since everyone sympathizes with starving artists but not so much with highly-paid film professionals. Nevertheless, although "the film business is a business," as Ranahan admits, "There is always a creative side," especially among Oakland film professionals and Ranahan himself.
"I am doing free equipment for San Francisco State this weekend to shoot a feature. I offered to do something at Youth Uprising [in East Oakland]. The creativity I saw, when I did a tour there, was fabulous. There was a young woman who was amazing, who produced a politically savvy piece with visuals that were beautiful."
"Those are groups to which we need to reach out to more. For these kids to succeed, it is much harder then a kid from Orinda or Marin County." In fact, Ranahan is already on it.
"I tried to start PAU, the Production Assistant University, due to my frustration of having PAs, who get out of one of those 30 thousand-a-year schools, show up on set the first day and don't have the slightest idea of how to be a PA."
"I started as a PA. It is the most important job in this business. Everything I do relates back to me working as PA for Ned Kopp—one of the best assistant directors we had in Northern California—and learning all the other departments and how they integrate."
With the help of Sean House, he has already trained one Oakland resident and opportunities to PA are expanding.
"The film business is booming. We are doing as well as we were in the late '90s with the dot com boom. We have increased commercial production and more television and feature production. HBO has a new show that is coming to shoot a pilot in Oakland for five days. They said—quote unquote—they would like to have the show here."
Admittedly, it is hard to compete against incentives in New Mexico or "right-to-work" states like Texas and Louisiana where a key grip gets about $250-300 a day, whereas here they earn $500-650. If the project is not location determined, most producers would say "Let's save 50%!" On top of which, Texas, Michigan, Vancouver and other states are offering massive rebates.
"SF has done a wonderful job with tax rebates, as has the California Film Commission. Amy Lemish [of the CFC] has been fantastic and there has been a move back [of film production]. The one BIG advantage we have: The best weather in the country—by far more sunny days—which will save a production money."
With the recession drawing to a close, film rebounding in Northern California, Councilwoman Kaplan on the job, and West Oakland Specialist Prado trying to find the OFC a suitable spot—not to mention the pipe dream, literally, of film impresario Kanbar building a deluxe OFC at the old Pacific Pipe location—the dream of Oakland becoming a regional media hub—although hanging by a thread—is still there.
Certainly, we at CineSource, also well-versed in thread-hanging, intend to put our eggs in that basket and sit on them as long as we can with the hope that, before the thread breaks, they hatch. Cine Siemper Fi!
Posted on Dec 12, 2012 - 01:29 AM