Runaway Production: A State of Emergency

The production and distribution of films and television programs is one of California’s most valuable cultural and economic resources, responsible for nearly 200,000 direct jobs and $17 billion in wages in the state. This doesn’t even include the value of seeing your backyard in a movie: priceless.

As a young boy, I remember going to Ports O’ Call to meet Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize), on set while filming Fantasy Island, and seeing Poncharello (Erik Estrada) of CHiPs ride his motorcycle down 19th Street.

More recently, I visited actor Joe Mantegna on the set of Criminal Minds as they filmed a flashback scene in front of the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, and just last week Clint Eastwood stopped by my office for a visit while filming scenes for the movie version of Jersey Boys in the San Pedro Municipal Building. FilmLA, the nonprofit organization that coordinates and processes permits for on-location motion picture, television and commercial production in the Los Angeles region, reports the 15th Council District alone saw a total of over 600 permitted filming days last year.

The City of Los Angeles, including San Pedro and the Port, have often been the star setting of many productions, but in the last decade we have been losing that status and the jobs that come with it. Runaway film production continues to worsen, so much that our new Mayor, Eric Garcetti, has called the situation a “state of emergency” in a recent Variety magazine cover story.

As an example, the movie Battle: Los Angeles was not shot in L.A., but rather Louisiana, a state where film industry employment is up 76% in the last decade. The amount of on-location filming in Los Angeles has plummeted 60% since it peaked 15 years ago. Production of television dramas saw a significant 20% decline in 2012 compared to 2011. This is the largest decline on record and a hard blow to the local economy. Only eight percent of last fall’s new network television dramas were made in LA, compared to 79% seven years ago.

Making one $200 million movie in California has an economic impact greater than six seasons of Lakers home games, so we must do everything in our power to keep these productions here.

While the City Council has already passed a set of initiatives to waive fees for TV drama pilots and Mayor Garcetti has promised to name a “film czar” in his office, we must do more.

“These days studio chiefs insist that filmmakers they work with take advantage of out-of-state incentives to lower production costs, which on a single major motion picture can amount to savings of tens of millions. Those savings are crucial in a franchise-obsessed era when big-budget movies commonly cost north of $200 million to produce,” reports Variety.

According to Entertainment Partners, California lost $3 billion in film crew wages because of runaway production. As reference, a single $70 million movie sustains 928 jobs and generates $10.6 million in state and local tax revenue.

We must rival the out-of-state incentives. The California Film and Television Tax Credit Program has helped support local production since 2009 and has brought new projects to the Los Angeles region, but we must do more.

Evidence continues to mount that California can easily outmatch major competitors like Georgia, Louisiana or Canada for only a fraction of what they offer. Solutions to the problem of runaway production are available, if we want them.

I agree with Mayor Garcetti that the State Film Credit cap must be lifted. This will be the work of our State Legislature. I will urge my colleagues in Sacramento to also see this as a “state of emergency” and help us offer even more incentives for our entertainment industry to remain in Los Angeles.

On a municipal level, we must do what it takes to make it cheaper and easier to film in Los Angeles. I will continue to fight to keep Los Angeles the entertainment production capital of the world, and to preserve the jobs and economic benefits that come along with it. I urge you to support me in this effort.

I launched a redesign of my website www.LA15th.com. This new site will allow residents access to more information and is equipped to accept your suggestions and requests in making our city a better place to live and work. spt

Backlot San Pedro

The Street With No Name (1948) featured the old Ferry Building.

The city of San Pedro has a list of television and film credits that would make any A-list celebrity green with envy and warrant at least three lifetime achievement awards; credits that span the history of filmmaking in California.

In 1910, famed director, D.W. Griffith, is credited with filming the very first movie in Hollywood. That same year, Griffith directed Mary Pickford in the Unchanging Sea, a Biograph Short shot along the Southern California coastline that included San Pedro. This would be the first of a number of films that would bring America’s Sweetheart to the Port Town, the most notable of which was the Little American, the motion picture telling of the sinking of the Lusitania. Under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille, Mary Pickford jumps from the sinking ship into the frigid night waters of the San Pedro Bay.

Charlie Chaplin, co-founder of United Artists with Ms. Pickford, also spent some time filming in and around San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles. A Day’s Pleasure (1919), a First National Films short, showed Chaplin’s famous Tramp character driving his family to the waterfront to enjoy a day out on a harbor cruise. The film gives us a rare glimpse of the Fifth Street landing pier next to the Southern Pacific Passenger Station. Chaplin’s character dances on the top deck of the pleasure boat as the San Pedro coastline bobs around in the background. For Modern Times (1936), one of Chaplin’s more popular feature-length films, an entire street scene was built somewhere along the waterfront and Paulette Goddard can be seen running across boats outside of the French Sardine Company.

Jean Harlow visits the SP Chamber of Commerce.

Because San Pedro was still in its youth during the silent era, most filming utilized the working waterfront, the natural coastline or the waters of the San Pedro Bay. Writer Jack London played a bit role in the 1913 film version of his novel, The Sea Wolf. The first feature length film, The Squaw Man (1914) included scenes along the San Pedro waterfront. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand wake to have their coastal love nest taking on water in Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916). Scenes of the couple standing on the house, roof deep in water, were filmed off the coast of what would now be considered the outer portion of Cabrillo Beach. The very first Tarzan movie, Tarzan of the Apes (1918), dressed the coastline like a jungle for Olympian Elmo Lincoln to swing around in. Silent era heartthrob, Rudolph Valentino, dives into action to save a floundering Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks (1922), their only picture together.

The Golden Era

The studio system ruled Hollywood during the golden era of filmmaking from the 1930s thru the 1950s. The need for the studios to produce content to fill their movie theaters ramped up production and ultimately location shooting in San Pedro, not only along and on the waterfront, but now reaching into the city limits.

One of the most famous movies to film in San Pedro during this era was the original King Kong (1933). The first shots taken for the movie, the landing party’s arrival, took place on a stretch of beach in San Pedro. The live action portion of Kong getting gas bombed was also filmed during that time.

Chinatown (1974) featured Point Fermin.

The golden era also saw the rise in the popularity of the military themed movies, primarily the navy. This could have been due to the events leading to World War II and the close proximity of the Pacific Fleet to Hollywood while it was based here in San Pedro. Clara Bow played a dance hall hostess in The Fleet’s In (1928). Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler made a couple of movies together here, Flirtation Walk (1934) and Shipmates Forever (1935). Joan Blondell also filmed Miss Pacific Fleet in 1935 in San Pedro, possibly at the same time Dick Powell was in town. The following year, on September 19, 1936, Powell and Blondell married aboard a ship in San Pedro.

The military movies didn’t have a monopoly on San Pedro screen time; some big time Hollywood stars found themselves taking on some local flavor. San Pedrans must have thought the movie Riffraff (1936) hit a little too close to home when Spencer Tracy played a fisherman who marries a cannery worker played by Jean Harlow. Miss Harlow even appeared at a local function at the Jugoslav hall that year and presented the Chamber of Commerce with a cake to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Friedrich March and Carole Lombard fall in love after plunging into port waters in Nothing Sacred (1936). In another movie with a storyline familiar to San Pedrans, John Wayne played a Norwegian seaman who gets shanghaied and rescued by his shipmates in The Long Voyage Home (1940).

To Live and Die in LA (1985) featured the Vincent Thomas Bridge.

Hollywood didn’t stop making movies during the war years. San Pedro being home to an active Army base, Fort MacArthur, made it an even more sought after location. There were quite a few movies that capitalized on the close proximity of the army base, including Stage Door Canteen (1943) and Buck Privates Come Home (1947), starring the comedy team of Abbott & Costello. This is the Army (1943), was almost entirely filmed at the upper reservation of Fort MacArthur. The movie starred future president Ronald Reagan, future senator George Murphy and a host of entertainers who were all enlisted in the army at the time. When the film was released, a premiere was held at the theater on the grounds of Fort MacArthur.

Film noir made its way to San Pedro in 1948 with the film, The Street with No Name. A brief chase scene through the municipal ferry building is so important historically for San Pedrans because the ferry ceased operation in 1963 and the building now houses the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. This is a prime example of the unintentional benefits of filming in San Pedro, the town’s history being preserved on film.

The Small Screen

With forty years of film experience under its belt, the city of San Pedro transitioned to the small screen effortlessly. While the show Waterfront (1954) was one of the first shows to film in San Pedro, The Fugitive was one of the most famous television shows to first start filming in San Pedro during the 1960s. The 1970s and 80s brought about the advent of the cop series. Name a cop show or private investigator television series and it probably filmed in San Pedro. Mod Squad, The Rookies, Adam-12, Barnaby Jones, Cannon, Mannix, The Rockford Files, Baretta, Starsky & Hutch, Murder She Wrote, Kojak, Columbo, Knight Rider, TJ Hooker, MacGyver and The A-Team. The draw for these shows to come and film in San Pedro included the waterfront and port, but they were also the first to venture into the downtown area and some of the old neighborhoods. The aging brick buildings and what was left of Beacon Street lent credibility to the crime the cops and private eyes were battling. The classic look of the municipal building for a police headquarters didn’t hurt matters either.

1980s television series Highway to Heaven gets festive on 7th Street.

The Love Boat was another television hit that put San Pedro on the map. The Princess Cruise ship that was used in the show, left from the Los Angeles World Cruise Center south of the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Every week the guest stars would start and end the show in front of the cruise ship terminal.

Other notable television shows that have filmed in San Pedro include: Highway to Heaven, General Hospital, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Power Rangers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, Angel, The X-Files, 24, Prison Break, Heroes and Charmed.

There are two current and widely popular shows that have filmed in San Pedro recently, Dexter and Mad Men. Dexter, a Showtime series now in its final season, has filmed here from the inception of the series, creatively shooting around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to make it look like Dexter’s home of Miami. Mad Men, which will begin its final season in 2014, has shot a couple of episodes in the Point Fermin area of San Pedro, but instead of pretending to be another location, Don Draper calls San Pedro by name.

Blockbusters & Big Names

Any article on San Pedro filming locations would be incomplete if it didn’t include certain films. Chinatown (1974) is usually one of the first films to be associated with San Pedro filming locations. Not only was the movie partially filmed in town, in the Point Fermin and Sunken City areas, but also Robert Towne, a man who grew up in San Pedro and whose family ran a business on 6th St. in downtown, wrote the movie. The film’s star, Jack Nicholson, would also star in A Few Good Men (1992) that used both the Coast Guard Station on Reservation Point and the upper reservation of Fort MacArthur. Nicholson’s co-stars included Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Keifer Sutherland, and Kevin Pollack.

The Rock (1996) explodes in downtown on 7th Street.

Pollack would return to San Pedro three years later as part of the cast of The Usual Suspects (1995) that also included Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Chazz Palminteri, Stephen Baldwin and Kevin Spacey. It could be argued that Spacey won his first Academy Award for the performance he gave on Beacon Street in San Pedro during that film.

The following year, San Pedro got its first taste of the Michael Bay treatment with a huge fiery crash in the middle of downtown. Nicolas Cage, who holds the record for most features filmed in San Pedro, co-starred with Sean Connery in The Rock (1996), that chase scene making a lasting impression on the town. The last film that bears mentioning is the cult classic, The Big Lebowski (1998). The scene where John Goodman spreads the ashes and it blows into Jeff Bridges’ face was shot inside of the ruins of Sunken City.

There are so many more movies and television shows that could be mentioned, and every year more are filmed here (Clint Eastwood was just here a couple of weeks ago, directing the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, Jersey Boys). Most San Pedrans take it for granted, some love the bragging rights, but San Pedrans and Angelenos alike should be grateful to filmmakers for preserving their heritage on film for future generations to enjoy. spt