Harvey Milk film could mark industry turnaround in San Francisco

San Francisco’s lackluster film industry received its first bit of good news in a while — production of a biopic on Harvey Milk will be filmed in The City for eight weeks beginning in January.

While shooting the film in San Francisco, where the story takes place, may seem like the obvious choice, productions with story lines based in San Francisco no longer tend to film here. Instead, according to city officials, they run through San Francisco for a few days shooting exterior shots and film the production elsewhere where it is cheaper.

The film, titled “Milk,” directed by Gus Van Sant and starring actor Sean Penn, will capture the life of Milk, who was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the nation. Milk was gunned down at City Hall by former Board of Supervisors colleague Dan White. Van Sant, along with Mayor Gavin Newsom, recently announced the film will be shot in San Francisco and base its operations on Treasure Island.

That’s the good news for the film industry. Since 2001, the loss of 1,099 film industry jobs as of 2006 has led to the loss of more than $123 million in spending and more than $8.4 million in tax revenue, a report recently released by the Film Commission said.

The film industry, which peaked in 1999, reached an all-time low in 2003 and the first half of 2004, when no major motion pictures were filmed in The City.

The last major film activity was in 2005 when three major pictures —”Pursuit of Happyness,” “Rent” and “Zodiac” — shot in The City. Production costs reached $151 million and sank about $60 million into the local economy.

The film industry’s decline in San Francisco is blamed by city officials on the enormous financial incentives other states and foreign cities provide film productions, while San Francisco has become increasingly expensive.

The City had created a film incentive rebate program — which offers a reimbursement of city fees and a portion of local taxes — but it is minuscule compared with rebates offered in other locations, usually funded by state governments. California has no film incentive program.

It remains unclear how much the “Milk” production will benefit San Francisco’s economy because the final details of the deal have yet been worked out, according to Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard, who said it is expected to result in hundreds of jobs for local labor unions.

In 2004, Newsom attempted to revitalize the film industry by overhauling The City’s film office, sinking more money into the Film Commission and appointing Stefanie Coyote as its executive director.

“We are going to do everything we can to make sure they have a positive experience here and it attracts even more new film business to The City,” Ballard said.

S.F. movie industry

Impact of San Francisco's declining film industry during the six-year period of 2001-06

1,936 Jobs lost

$123 million Loss of local spending

$8.4 million Loss of tax dollars

Source: San Francisco Film Commission: San Francisco Film Cluster Economic Analysis report, ICF International

jsabatini@examiner.com

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