Hollywood's Homecoming

It may look like Oregon, but it's probably California

WHEN the director of ''Smoke Jumpers'' needed 1,200 acres of forest to burn in a film on Colorado firefighters, officials in California's woodsy El Dorado County said, ''Here's the trees; here's the matches.''

When the producers of ''Outbreak'' wanted a quaint, Oregon town for a conspiracy thriller, authorities in the northern California towns of Eureka and Ferndale said, ''We can do Oregon.''

The newfound willingness of California officials - from governor to mayors - to cooperate with the $40-billion-a-year movie industry is reversing a decade-old exodus. Hollywood filmmakers, who once high-tailed it out of the state to escape soaring costs and local red tape, are increasingly coming home.

Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has taken a lead role worthy of Cecil B. De Mille's ''Ten Commandments.'' His refrain: ''Thou shalt aid, not aggravate, filmmakers.''

''This is a long-term, top-down, no-holds-barred effort to reverse the perception that California is not friendly to the film business,'' says Patti Archuletta, director of the California State Film Commission. To help pull California out of its worst recession since the Great Depression, four years ago Governor Wilson appointed Ms. Archuletta to actively lobby every state official from parks to police to transportation accommodate studios wishing to film here.

State and county film commissions were beefed up not only to ease the permitting process but also to actively pursue those filmmakers intending to shoot elsewhere. In the celluloid capital of Los Angeles, public bureaucracies were streamlined and privatized. A 20-member, 24-hour team of red-tape ''commandos'' was set up to smooth relations between on-street production companies and residents, who often grow weary of the intrusion by car chases, bush-trampling spectators, and football fields' worth of mobile equipment.

''The state commission and EIDC [the Los Angeles Entertainment Industry Development Corporation] have been more successful than everyone on both sides could've hoped,'' says Gini Barrett, senior vice president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the umbrella group representing southern California studios.

The number of production shooting days in Los Angeles is up 25 percent last year over 1993 and 1994. During December 1995, shooting days were up 51 percent over the previous December.

''For years producers complained how they hated to film here; now the turnaround is extraordinary,'' says Barrett.

When productions stay in-state, so does money: up to $100,000 a day, which includes industry payroll to workers as well as trickle-down benefits to industry-related firms (costumemakers, set-designers), hotels, and restaurants.

Jobs stay as well. Over the past five years, the number of entertainment jobs has risen from 350,000 to 500,000.

''The entertainment industry has been one of the bright spots for job creation in an economy dominated by aerospace and defense-firm downsizing,'' says Larry Kimbell, director of business forecasting at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Individual communities have learned they can enjoy short-term booms from hosting film productions as well. The earthquake-ravaged towns of Ferndale and Eureka reaped dividends of $3.5 million and $10 million, respectively, from two months' filming of ''Outbreak,'' according to Kathleen Gordon-Burke, the local county film commissioner.

There is also the potential of huge tourist income.

''There is no tourism department in the world rich enough to buy as stunning a billboard as a movie shot in your area,'' says Leigh von der Esch, president of the Association of Film Commissioners International. Citing the influx of 100,000 new annual visitors to Iowa since the filming of ''Field of Dreams,'' she says: ''The benefits are incalculable.''

Although several key producers say they are staying in California more often out of convenience and to save money, Ms. von der Esch says the amount of movie production is growing all around. A record number of feature films - 257 last year - and demand for burgeoning cable networks are increasing the size of the production pie for everyone.

In southern California, the new demand for film and a production-friendly environment have increased the already-prominent street profile of filmmaking.

Cody Cluff, head of the EIDC, estimates the 150 to 180 productions are filming somewhere in the city everyday. In the past, such a quantity of crews might have caused serious problems.

''Whereas it was once a pain for California communities to put up with so much filming in their backyard, the public itself has become savvy to the amount of money that trickles down to them,'' says Jack Kyser, director of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation.

Because of the new volume, kudos are being lavished on L.A.'s EIDC. ''We would have shot the film in New York City if it weren't for the EIDC and others paving the way for us here,'' says Jim McCabe, location director for the 1994 hit ''Speed.''

TO get approval for his crews to cordon several blocks of Hollywood Boulevard, main streets in Venice, and miles of highway, Mr. McCabe received - at the personal behest of Wilson - quick permission to cross city, county, and state jurisdictions. Getting permits the old way may have been so time-consuming and complicated as to be prohibitive, he says.

''Usually there is one bureaucrat somewhere throwing a monkey wrench into the works,'' says McCabe. ''Not this time.''

While filming has become simpler in the Golden State, the new environment is not friendly enough, say some veterans who would like to see some anti-harassment legislation introduced. More filming means more irate residents, they say.

''The new government attitude is doing much to educate the public as to how critical we are,'' says Leonard Hill, producer of several television network ''movies-of-the-week.'' But he complains that too many citizens still sabotage neighborhood-based productions by shining flashlights or starting lawn mowers with hopes of getting cash from producers to stop.

''We still run into way too many people trying to extort us,'' he says.

A bill was recently passed in Jacksonville, Fla., allowing police to fine residents interfering with properly permitted productions. A similar bill died in the California legislature last year, but is expected to be resurrected soon.

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