Potrero Hill an (Unpaid) Television and Film Star
After 27 years at the corner of 19th and Texas streets, Ed Lortz has seen his share of movie shoots. He even got a piece of the action once: $300 from Pacific Heights’ production staff to plug in an extension cord. His house flashes across the screen in one scene. “I’ve seen dozens, most likely over 50 shoots, in the vicinity of 19th and Texas, which seems to be a view magnet for location agents,” said Lortz.
Susannah Robinson, the San Francisco Film Commission’s executive director, confirmed that Potrero Hill is a popular location to film movies, television, and, increasingly, commercials. According to Robinson, the Hill visually offers it all, with great views, Victorian architecture, and San Francisco’s iconic steep hills.
This summer, the Hill served as backdrop for the oft-played AT&T/Samsung commercial of a man running through San Francisco, and appeared in the DC Shoes viral video of a car racing and skidding around City corners. Last month, Woody Allen’s was shooting his yet untitled feature film around San Francisco. Major films and television shows that’ve been filmed on Potrero Hill include Bullitt and Nash Bridges.
“The message we try to get across to all the neighbors is that this industry benefits locals because they hire local crew and actors. It is keeping this industry alive,” said Robinson. There’s no legal requirement that productions hire locally. Unions encourage it, and most commercial shoots are done so quickly that bringing in people from outside San Francisco doesn’t make sense. While feature films and television shows might import some of their own talent, they tend to rely on local crews. Robinson pointed to the television show Trauma, which, before it was cancelled, employed 135 people a week at union wages.
While the City collects fees from production companies to use San Francisco as their backdrop — including a nominal daily rate to the Film Commission, plus payments to the San Francisco Police and the Recreation and Parks departments for extra personnel and permits — there’s no requirement for any contributions to a neighborhood or neighbors who may be displaced by filming or bothered by large equipment blocking nearby streets.
Lortz feels strongly that production companies should be required to contribute to the communities in which they operate. The companies have paid his neighbors thousands of dollars to “rent” exterior shots of their homes. “I know each production company pays the City tons of money, but Potrero gets nothing. We should require each production company to contribute to an approved list,” Lortz said.
Last July, at a still photography shoot for a Buick car commercial, roughly 15 people gathered at the top of Vermont and 20th streets to make sure they got the perfect camera angle. Creative director Zach Crawford, of First Shot Productions, had traveled from Los Angeles to produce the shoot. It was his first time working in San Francisco. “The police have been great, and generally the people have been great,” Crawford said. But he was angry that he’d been told to donate $1,000 to a neighborhood group or the neighbors would protest. “That is bribery. It makes me not want to come back. This wouldn’t happen in LA.”
Marty Kenlon, the location scout for the Buick shoot and a San Franciscan who has been working in the industry for decades, saw things differently. According to Kenlon, donations to neighborhood groups by production companies are a common practice in the City. “In overexposed areas, especially like Lombard, North Beach, and Alamo Square, they want to be involved in a dialogue with film companies. They have well-organized groups that work with the people that are filming and get funds,” said Kenlon.
The Vermont Street Neighborhood Association, which received the Buick donation, has seen their street’s media exposure jump over the last few years. In 2012, the association decided to solicit money from larger companies for using their street. Vermont Street’s rise in popularity is mainly due to the annual Bring Your Own Big Wheel Event, a toy bike race that arrived on Vermont in 2008 after being kicked off Lombard Street. “Production scouts tell me they found Vermont Street by reading about it in Wired [Magazine] or seeing it on YouTube because of Big Wheel,” said Joyce Book, a Vermont Street Neighborhood Association member. This year, Book has witnessed productions come almost monthly to the street, ranging from the DC Shoe video, the Buick commercial, and skateboarders seeking a new destination to film their tricks.
With both the DC Shoe video and the Buick commercial shoot, the neighborhood association solicited donations — $1,000 for a day of shooting — which will be dedicated to street maintenance and neighborhood safety. And while Vermont may have increased exposure of late, the money is certainly needed. The San Francisco Department of Public Works calls the 800 block of Vermont — like its crooked counterpart Lombard — an “unaccepted” street. This means that the City doesn’t maintain it; responsibility falls to frontage property owners. Which is why, Book explained, the street has so many potholes and damaged historical walls.
“If the City is not going to maintain it or clean it then we are going to create a neighborhood association. We are going to ask for donations to support and maintain the street,” Book said. She dismissed Crawford’s account of how the association solicited the donation, insisting that she had a cordial conversation with Kenlon, and, as she understood it Buick was happy to make the donation. The conversation may have taken place shortly before filming had been scheduled, but, according to Book, that was because the neighborhood hadn’t been properly notified, an issue Book wants to work on with the San Francisco Film Commission.
The Vermont Neighborhood Association wants production companies to provide more advanced notice of filming, so neighbors can be prepared, move their cars, and make alternative arrangements when needed. “On Lombard Street there are no long-term homeowners. The average time to sell your house is 2.5 years. The tour bus driver honks his horn down the street,” explained Book. “If you really love your neighborhood, you learn to protect it in a responsible way.”
While the Film Commission requires production companies to notify neighbors and neighborhood groups in advance of a shoot, Lauren Machado, the commission’s filming coordinator, said that schedules can change quickly, which can make advance notification difficult. “A company could want to film in a different place one day because of weather. They want sun and it happens to be fog,” Machado explained.
Some residents who had to make slight changes to their routine because of the Buick shoot weren’t miffed. “We are not at all inconvenienced. It is no big deal. And I like Potrero Hill in the movies and commercials because it sort of confirms that this is the lovely place that I know,” said Meghan Cochran, who had walked from her home two blocks away to pick up her child from her nanny share in front of the shoot.
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