I grew up in truly the last ‘boom’ of the film industry in my hometown of San Diego. I was raised on the commercial sets of my Father’s award winning production company and heard tales of an active film industry with hit films and movies that filmed in town during the 90’s and early 2000’s like Top Gun, Anchorman, Veronica Mars and Silk Stalkings. The now defunct (as far as film & TV production goes) Stu Segall Productions, was a massive 70,000 square foot complex in the heart of the county that ran up to 50 different productions a day on the lot during its heyday, and brought in $800 million dollars in direct spending during it’s first years in business. The also now extinct San Diego Film Commission used to bring in up to $100 million in production company spending throughout the county on a yearly basis. The short-lived FX show Terriers only filmed in town for one season but brought in around $16 million dollars in outside spending to the region. Unfortunately, right around the same time my professional career in the industry began, the film commission was shut down, Stu Segall had switched use of his studio space to focus only on advanced Police & Military training, and the city government itself had no extra incentives to attract serious productions of any kind.
As I now venture out of producing my own independent TV Pilots and headfirst into the world of independent filmmaking, looking to find a city that was not only film friendly but possibly could provide some tax rebates or budget incentives became a top priority when writing my first feature. While the script was originally set in my hometown, a first-time trip to Minnesota last fall for the Catalyst Content Festival, where our TV Pilot Chartered was a selection, had me reimagining my entire feature.
Besides being treated to the absolute gorgeous landscape in the aptly named ‘land of 10,00 lakes’ along my journey up the I-35 toward Duluth, the very first Catalyst event I attended in Duluth made it known they had a mission to make Duluth and Minnesota a major player in film and television production. As I sat in the Spirit of the North Theater and listened to how Philip Gilpin Jr., Catalyst’s Executive Director, and everyone from the head of Minnesota State Film Commission to local and state politicians who were pushing for a massive increase in the state’s tax incentives pool to jump start more production, my wheels started spinning.
Throughout my week in Duluth I experienced a portion of every season - a rainy day or two, a sunny day in the 70’s that felt almost no different from life back in San Diego, and some light snowfall near the end of the week. I saw beautiful views and sunset skies over Lake Superior, quirky underground tunnels, and a downtown main street that would be picturesque for a movie set in almost any decade. The locals were as ‘Minnesota nice’ as advertised and I met creators from all over the world during my week in Duluth, including a few young producers/creatives from Minnesota; one of whom has already agreed to come on board our feature production as a local producer. Upon my flight back to San Diego I was swooning and saw no reason why my film, a story inspired by our first viral TV Pilot about the lives of movie theater workers, could not shift its setting from coastal San Diego to northern Minnesota. In fact, the further geographical distance from Los Angeles strengthened the story we were writing.
As I imagine all my fellow filmmakers would agree; making something like a TV pilot or feature film is difficult. There is an incredible amount of detailed work that goes into a producing something, especially a feature, and any help that we can find along the way is integral to a successful outcome. The importance of an active and helpful film commission, one that makes permitting, finding locations, crew and all other types of local vendors needed in a production easy, is monumental towards making the pre-production process a breeze and lessening potential stress and chaos during production. And when tax incentives or rebates become apart of the picture, indie filmmakers rejoice even more, because the difference a 25% reimbursement on local production expenditures, like currently passed in Minnesota, or the potential additional rebate from a city like Duluth on local production expenses are gigantic signals to filmmakers at all levels of their career that you are serious about bringing production to your region. When working with an average independent film budget of around $750,000 (or in most of our cases, a lot less), large rebates and incentives what Minnesota is trying to put together go along way toward being able to provide a better cast, a more well equipped crew and a post-production budget that isn’t hampered by whatever is ‘leftover’ from a thinly stretched production budget.
As the head of a creative agency that is trying to grow and connect the arts community in San Diego, I only wish we had more voices like Philip fighting for incentives and rebates like these in our town. The local government has been incredibly slow to act since the Film Commissions dissolution in 2013. And while California does offer a similar rebate on in-state expenditures like Minnesota does, independent filmmakers like myself are fighting major studios for those state-wide rebates. Even though recently San Diego’s Mayor Faulconer claimed the city was in the middle of a ‘film renaissance’, my one week in Duluth made me feel like the entire state of Minnesota would be much more helpful and ready to assist me in producing my first feature than almost any of the connections I have made in San Diego since my time as a professional the last 6+ years. And that is largely because I do not have any head of the San Diego Film Commission to go meet with. Or email. Or communicate with. There’s a few different loosely associated private organizations in town that try to be the de-facto film commission, but nothing exists that I feel that can truly help me produce a feature with the type of budget and quality I’m aiming for.
So while the world slowly picks up back to normal, and we here at Rising Tides Creative begin to unveil our plans for the local arts community, I’m hoping we can take a page from Duluth, Minnesota and get serious about bringing back more legitimate productions to San Diego. Until then, states like Minnesota that remain resolute and committed to expanding their capabilities and capacity to produce high-quality TV and Film projects, will be where I and other filmmakers must look to produce our higher end, large scale projects.