Mar 28, 2017
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Venerable Camera Rental Closes: Exit Interview with Lee Utterbach
by Doniphan Blair
Lee Utterbach, gear supplier to the stars of San Francisco, reflects on 30 years in the biz. photo: D. Blair
A bit like its owner,
Lee Utterbach Camera
was not that imposing at first glance. On a side street in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, adjacent to a men-becoming-women shelter, and around the corner from some cool bars, the garage-doored, hangar-like building didn’t seem like the best place to house several million dollars worth of top-notch gear and a similarly stellar staff. There was the ever-affable Ryan Wilmot (rentals coordinator), the classy, world-traveling Casey Hirshfield (head tech and camera repair), and Adolph Esposito (a machinist who could create camera parts) among others.
Moreover, the facility had almost a thousand square feet of solar panels, supplying almost 90% of its electricity, on the roof adjacent an ample hot tub and lush, almost tropical, garden. Indeed, Mr. Utterbach was living upstairs with his wife, Aly Downs, a live event production manager, making for some hip lifestyling as well as a convenient thirty-second commute.
I use the terms “was” and “had” because, sadly, Lee Utterbach Camera, San Francisco’s premiere 35mm and video rental house, is no more. It closed in November, a victim not so much of the recession but the general downturn of San Francisco filmmaking and Mr. Utterbach’s feeling that, at 62, it was time to move on.
Ryan Wilmot, a very friendly guy, and often the one you'd be dealing with at Utterbach, takes a break from the extensive work of dismantling Utterbach Camera. photo: D. Blair
“We are bummed to be losing 35mm in the Bay Area—now you have to go to LA,” noted Hirshfield, who Lee rescued from LA after he returned from working for Panavision in New Zealand. “It’s the end of an era, we’d be busy and then quiet—not like the days of yore when you had five camera packages going out every day. And no one really wanted to take it over, because digital is taking over.”
"It is so sad about Lee closing," said production maestra Debbie Brubaker, "But he was ready—what can we say? Just another landmark gone on vacation..."
The lanky, soft spoken AND surprisingly playful Mr. OOTTERbach (as an actor pronounced it on his theatrical voice message) grew up in Los Angeles, where he got into film from photography after studying neither at the University of California at Northridge. He worked as an assistant editor on the skateboarding film “Freewheelin” (1976) and as an assistant camera on a several small features like “Summer Camp” (1979), another teen-sploitation film, before heading north, just in time for the Golden Age of San Francisco filmmaking.
Lee Utterbach in Germany with Alfred Chrosziel, the owner of a film gear manufacturing company, who inspired Lee to become an avid sailor. Lee sometimes spent a month a year sailing around Mexico and elsewhere. photo: L. Utterbach
After camera assisting around San Francisco for a couple of years, he saw an opportunity to start renting equipment. Lee Utterbach Camera grew rapidly, eventually outfitting thousands of TV commercials, shorts, documentaries and industrials as well as a number of features, including the first two by Wayne Wang, “Chan is Missing” (1982) and “Dim Sum” (1985).
Over thirty years in the business allows Lee Utterbach an excellent overview and insight into the local film scene, which I naturally wanted to ask him about. But I also wanted the full story on why he closed. In last month’s CineSource, I mentioned it but didn’t give it a fair characterization, so we started there.
The recession certainly had something to do with me closing but it wasn’t the only reason. Like I said, it is kind of complicated. As you know, the ’80s and ’90s were the wonderful years for filmmaking here in San Francisco. There were a lot of agencies and production companies here and I did very well. Around 9/11, everything just crashed. I look at the 2000 years as the rough years. Yes, it is partially the recession but the other reason is I was fortunate enough to be able to sell the building. I got an offer I was really happy with.
Do you mind if I take shots while we are talking?
As long as they are flattering.
Not too many people know about [the building sale]. I had been waiting ’til that happened to decide whether I wanted to regroup, re-invest, buy more equipment and move into HD totally. I couldn’t decide what to do, since I have been doing this so long. When I got the offer on the building, it seemed clear to me. I had been doing this for 31 years.
When I thought how long 31 years is, I felt like someone who had been in the military. I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ But I also thought, ‘I have been doing this long enough.’ I had a major operation a few years ago and still just don’t have the energy I had before. It was just a good time to bow out.
If I hadn’t had this thing about the building, I would be trying to make a go of it, even in this economy. Another thing that kept me in this for 31 years, I felt it was really worthwhile. I never imagined being involved in a business but, doing what I have been doing, I feel like I have been contributing to a community, providing a service.
Lee Utterbach on the roof of his old shop, where the nearly 1000 square feet of solar panels supplied almost 90% of his electricity. photo: D. Blair
I never really had a business plan when I started renting equipment. I just did it because I was really interested in film and cameras. That was my motivation. After doing it all this time, one of the hardest things was just closing up for San Francisco, but the whole business is changing. There is just no film business here anymore, except what comes from LA or New York once in a while. There is really no film production in San Francisco anymore.
How did you start?
I moved here in the late ’70s from Los Angeles because I couldn’t get in the union in LA. I bought a used 16mm NPR [Éclair]. I tried to go around getting jobs as a camera assistant with the camera and I was reasonably successful. I had a friend in Los Angeles who had some 35 mm equipment and he would put it on a Greyhound bus—when I would get a 35mm job—and we would split the money. I did that for a year and kept a log of the income, the cost of transportation, the insurance. At the end of the year, I realized that I could make the payments on the camera, if I actually had one here.
What was he sending up?
35mm Arriflex BL’s and Arri 3 cameras. I borrowed enough money to get a used BL, so I had the Eclair and the BL. There was another guy, Ned Kopp, who gave me some of his equipment and I was running with his stuff and my stuff. Then I bought an Arri 3 and I realized that I could only go out with one camera at a time, so I had these cameras just sitting there, not doing anything.
That was about 1983-84. I moved to the city [from Sausalito, where he rented space from Keith Mason] in 1982. Steve Michelson introduced me to Taylor Phelps and I got some space in his warehouse on King Street. I think it was 1986 when I sent out an announcement 'I’m not going to assist anymore, I’m just going to rent equipment.' I turned the clients I had over to the camera assistants I knew.
1983 was the big boom year. All of a sudden, San Francisco emerged out of the hippy backwater, and became a financial center, an advertising center. Coppola and Lucas were here and Fantasy. It was a boom time.
It was like hitting it at the right moment. The fellow in Los Angeles that was sending me the camera equipment,
, was a big help. He had a lot of knowledge. He talked me into the advantages of not working as an assistant anymore. I also bought a lot of equipment from him. He would purchase it new, use it for a couple of years, and then I’d buy it.
LUC's crew of John Gazdik, Rod Williams, Mark Fury, Greg Defou, Cameron Cutler and more muster almost the entire shop, circa 1988, for a Tom Waits concert, multi-camera shoot. photo: L. Utterbach
In the 60s, I was taking night classes in a junior college, including one in small business management. The instructor said, ‘Don’t start the business that you’ve always wanted to do. Look at the market, the competition, and find something that is so desperately needed that you’ll have a chance of making it.’
When I came up here, working as a camera assistant, I’d have to go to rental houses to get equipment. Nothing was interchangeable. The rental houses had been there for 20-plus years and they only had what they had. All the rental houses in San Francisco had just a camera rental department, which usually left a lot to be desired.
In the early ’80s there were a lot of technical innovations as well. There was a lot of new equipment coming out and, often, I had the only current items in the area. That really helped me get established. And it was good times, a lot of production companies, a lot of stuff going on. I was really fortunate because I was able to deal mostly with professional clients and 30% of our business was shipping to other rental houses outside California.
There weren’t very many rental houses.
When I started, there was Gassers: they had the Panavision dealership just before I got here. They supplied the cameras for ‘Dirty Harry’ . Then Greg Snazelle had the Panavision franchise, plus he rented Arri cameras, so that’s two. Then there was a company called FERCO; they were out of New York, at Brannan and Third.
And there were four labs, Palmers, Diners, Monaco—
And another guy on Second Street, who did a lot of work, Highland Labs, I believe, but it was a long time ago. So there was quite a bit of film being shot in San Francisco. And there were a lot of big post houses here. One Pass Film and Tape, Western, Michael Cunningham, Varietal Video and many more that came and went.
There were dozens. Michael Pickman-Thoon [of
] did a great story for us a year ago [
Tales of Post Past
], telling how those houses came up, largely servicing ad agencies.
Then the dot com thing came in. That was kind of when it ended. The 90s was the peak of professional clients who had good budgets, who were busy. The change in equipment was the reason. Smaller crews, more stills, lower budgets. Back then we had accounts receivables, now they pay right away and expect a big discount. That makes it rough to buy new gear.
(Left to right) Guido Cartoni, head of the Italian tripod manufacturer of the same name, Dan Reed, longtime LUC operations manager, Lee Utterbach and camera assistant Vance Piper, circa 1997. photo: L. Utterbach
A perfect storm. The other thing was the rebates started kicking in, in Vancouver, starting in 1997.
The whole rebate thing didn’t seem to work very well here, a lot of other states are giving unbelievable discounts.
I understood that a lot of stars in feature films would lobby to come to San Francisco, and that’s why they shot a lot of films and commercials here. It wasn’t cheaper, it was even more expensive. Barbara Munch used to tell me that Richard Gere loved to shop for Persian rugs when he was on location in San Francisco.
Being here 30 years and seeing all the different mayors come and go, it just seemed like nobody in local politics ever understood what they had. They didn’t do anything to make it easier. I used to think it was all up to the mayor but as my hair turned white I started thinking the mayor wasn’t as much of a power as I believed from watching Batman as a teenager. The Board of Supervisors seemed to be the puppet masters.
But I’ll never forget the story I heard that when they were making ‘Bullet,’ and Diane Feinstein was mayor. She was on her way to the hospital to see her husband—it wasn’t an emergency—and she got held up for 20 minutes because they had the streets blocked off. She went back to City Hall and tried to pass an ordinance to make it illegal to shoot a film in San Francisco. Talk about pro film making policies.
San Francisco needs the money as much as any other city. New York offers help. Here, it’s always been a struggle.
Going back to what you just said, what would explain [the problem with shooting film in San Francisco]? Is it that San Francisco is ‘leftist’ and LA so corporate?
When I came here I in the 60s, I remember being upset. People generalized that if you were from LA, you were into what you had more than who you were. Being from LA, it made me critical of San Franciscans. I had the same reaction when I moved from LA to Mammoth Lakes in my 20s, you weren’t a local. Or when I lived in Malibu. I would guess people feel like this is a very special place—a lot more unique than LA—and people up here seem to feel they’re better. I can’t think of any other reason.
It’s odd because they prostitute themselves in the tourist industry. The whole Fisherman’s Wharf is one big Disneyland but they don’t seem to mind.
Maybe how much money film brings in is kind of small potatoes. Tourism is how the City makes money; filmmaking is a pain in the ass. [Filmmakers] disrupt things; they close off the streets; and the City doesn’t make nearly as much money.
But film does bring in some tourists by creating icons, by creating images, but that’s a little airy-fairy for some of these minds.
I think one of the things that’s always made it a struggle for me here is that I’m really too close to Los Angeles. When
The upstairs pad, where Lee and his wife, Aly Downs, lived, and he sometimes worked out. photo: D. Blair
people are coming up here to do any kind of a project, they’re probably going to bring the equipment with them so I usually got the one or two day jobs. Here, we never got any great stages built. They come here to do cover shots and back to LA to finish, like ‘Parenthood.’ They went to a lot of trouble to make it look like it’s shot in Sausalito or Berkeley but it’s all done in LA or Vancouver. We’re too close to LA and the cost is much less in Vancouver.
But there’s enough room for more than one film industry. Indeed, there’s about four or five. It would make sense to have one commercial center and nearby to have an alternative center.
People always compare us to Los Angeles, but we’re never going to be that.
When Lucas and Coppola came up here, it was with the intention of creating another center. Lucas has built his own little world.
It’s like the Disneyworld of George Lucas. It’s beautiful. He has everything there. He even rents out services to other people. But it’s not like Los Angeles.
Also, we don’t have the investor community.
It’s funny you should say that. Warner Bros. in the 40s and 50s was like a factory. All that they cared about was making money. They turned out great films in spite of the fact that they were making six movies A MONTH. The director didn’t even get credit, only Hal Wallis.
I believe that Speilberg said he’ll never shoot a film on anything except film as long as he’s alive but I can see Lucas using any kind of technology. He’s more of a businessman.
Coppola has been blackballed, he tries to make movies any way he can. Lucas isn’t really the schmoozer-type to run a studio. Still, I always thought something special could emerge here, indie specialties, multi-cultural, edgy.
There’s a whole kind of subculture here of independent films. But over the years, I’ve had a lot of employees, and it’s always the same thing. When they finally get going, they move to LA. They just can’t make it here.
Did you ever have any thoughts about going back to LA?
Well, I grew up there. If my father [Harry] was still around I might consider it, but he’s gone. And the Los Angeles I loved as a teenager is not there either. We could surf all day, have bonfires on the beach and sleep in sleeping bags. Today, they’d have the SWAT team and choppers out there in ten minutes. It’s not a safe place. The beaches close at sunset. The weather is nice, that is one thing I really miss—water you can get into without a wet suit.
So you don’t have any plans, you’re open.
That’s one of the things I decided: I want to do something else. But I have no idea what. I mean I certainly can’t retire [laughs]. No. My wife is going to continue working around here for as long as she wants to, so we rented a live-work place a few blocks away so were still in the 'hood.
Where is the equipment is going?
I sold a good amount. About 25% [goes] to Guillermo Navarro, a director of photography in Los Angeles. He bought most of the high-end stuff. I just closed another deal with Archie Fletcher, of Fletcher Camera in Chicago. And I have sold a good amount to this person and that person.
But no San Francisco guy came in and bought a chunk?
Ah, no, and I didn’t expect them to. The only one I could see buying my stuff would be another rental house. I sold a few things to local rental houses; they just bought what they sub-rented from me in the past. There are a lot of independent filmmakers bidding on stuff. I am just trying to get rid of most of it by the end of the year so I don’t have to put it into storage. I have to be out of here by January 15th.
That is tough. You have a good lawyer?
No, I have good CPA but so far I haven’t needed a lawyer. Everything is going pretty smoothly so far. It’s just sort of overwhelming when you’ve been in one place so long.
I moved here in 1992 and before that was on King Street, 151, since 1982. Ten years there and 18 years here. When I moved from King [due to the baseball park going in], the City paid for the move. Delancey Street handled the move and they moved everything including the [full] wastepaper baskets. That’s 28 years of gathering ridiculous things.
I didn’t realize that when I started, some day I would have to shut things down. Being a corporation, it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. I basically have to get rid of everything because it belongs to the corporation. We had a major garage sale yesterday… tools, welding equipment, machine shop stuff.
You had a machine shop here?
The roof of LUC, which Lee built, included a tropical roof garden, a picnic table, a large hot tub and massive solar panel array. photo: D. Blair
Yes, and I did welding and built a big garden on the roof, I can show you. [To the right of what was Lee Utterbach Camera is a normal apartment door leading up to deluxe studio apartment, with a lovely claw foot bathtub in the middle of the living room, a foodie-approved kitchen and a large regular bathroom, as well as, out a smallish back window, a roof garden, an ample hot tub and a gargantuan solar array.]
It was a way to have an ability to provide for myself, have food and a place to live and a decent life for all these years. I don’t know what I am going to do now.
Statistically, every American changes his job about three or four [or more] times in a lifetime.
It's like my dad. When I came out of high school, my dad said, ‘I think you should go out and get a job and see the world because I need to take the money I saved for you for college to go back to USC and become a dentist.’ He was 39 [and an aerospace engineer]. The other students nicknamed him Methuselah.
It blew me away, that he could do it. He lost a lot of friends at the time because they were all aerospace engineers. He went back to school and became someone else. A lot people didn’t like it. For me, it was always a freeing thing that he did that at such a late age. By the time I was 21, I had worked at 21 different places. But I don’t think I am going to go back to school to become a dentist.
The reason he got into it was: he was such a perfectionist and was good with his hands. When he became a dentist, he was successful because he got a very friendly woman to be his assistant. She would crack jokes with the patients, keep them laughing, while he did his good work. He was very shy, too [like Lee himself]. In the end, he would have all his patients calling him at home, to ask him legal advice and what they should do about this and that, because he was a good listener. He continued his practice until he was 78.
Really, that is amazing!
I am glad you came out because I just wanted you to know that it wasn’t just the bad times [that led to my closing]. It was just time to do this. I will miss it. I will be here for at least a year. I have a place my father left Aly and I in Arizona that we may settle in to. I’d like to have it as a base camp, perhaps put Harry’s plane back together [his father designed ultra-lights]. And travel [which probably means sailing].
Any thoughts of continuing involvement in the film business, of being a consultant?
I don’t think so. No. [laughs] It is out my system. I would like to try something else. If anybody wants to look me up try the public library in the Civic Center. I plan to catch up on my reading.
Posted on Dec 15, 2010 - 05:30 PM