News Column

Sonoma County an increasingly popular spot for commercials, independent films

July 22, 2013

YellowBrix

July 22--A muscular-looking Ram Truck hitched to a camper idled in front of the crumbly sea cliffs of Goat Rock as a group of wetsuit-clad surfers paddled into the choppy Sonoma Coast waves.

Bobbing in a boat just off shore, acclaimed director Derek Cianfrance ("Blue Valentine") captured the scene with a high-definition camera.

Back in the parking lot, a crew of 65 workers unloaded lights, cameras and other gear from six box trucks. The elaborate production could have been for a big-budget Hollywood movie. But it was actually part of a 30-second television commercial designed to show the Ram's toughness and appeal with recreation enthusiasts.

And as it turned out, the Sonoma Coast is the perfect location to depict this sort of sporty ruggedness, producers said.

"This spot offers beautiful water, rugged coastline. It's very dynamic visually," said Paul Nelson, executive producer with The Richards Group, the ad agency making the commercial. "We mirror that with the brand. You can't get this anywhere else in America."

Sonoma County's scenic coast, majestic redwoods, rural byways and charming towns have long been popular filming locations. But a big Hollywood movie hasn't been shot in the county in five years. As production companies increasingly seek better tax incentives out of state and film scenes in studios using special effects, Sonoma County has sought to attract commercials and smaller, independent films for the economic stimulus that they bring.

Location scouts, the industry specialists who find the best spots for filming movies and commercials, have used Sonoma County in films from Hitchcock's "The Birds" to "Bottle Shock" in 2008. More recently, a steady stream of commercials -- one per week on average -- have been filmed here.

The region's varied scenery and proximity to production facilities in the Bay Area make Sonoma County a desired filming destination, location scouts say.

"Very often I feel clients' needs are met by being in Sonoma County," said Jof Hanwright, a Sebastopol-based location scout, whose clients include Ford, Cadillac, Coca-Cola and AT&T. "We have a coastline that's unparalleled. There is some great architecture and great roads. The county has a lot to offer."

The Sonoma County Film Office estimated that filming on public property in the county generated $1,557,500 in 2012. The office does not track filming on private land.

Of the 80 filming permits issued last year, 59 were for television commercials or still photo shoots, according to the film office.

"We still get a lot of short-term filming," said Ben Stone, executive director of the county Economic Development Board, which oversees the film office. "We are a strong presence in commercials."

Filming can stimulate the economy as crew members spend money on local hotels and restaurants, and production companies hire local carpenters, makeup artists and caterers.

During the two-day Ram commercial shoot last week at Goat Rock and Stewart's Point, the five dozen-person crew from Los Angeles stayed in Bodega Bay and Timber Cove. Locations were scouted weeks in advance, and the production almost took its money to Monterey County until Chrysler executives saw pictures of the Sonoma Coast.

"Once they looked at the photos, they liked it so much," said Rebecca Deelo, production supervisor. "This place beat out Carmel."

At least 42 productions -- mostly commercials -- have been filmed in the past two years at Sonoma Coast State Park, according to Liz Beale, who handles permits for the park.

Production companies are required to pay for law enforcement to control traffic, life guards for shoots in the water and a monitor from the park in addition to a $200 per day park review fee, Beale said. Film permits are not issued for weekends when tourist numbers are highest.

"The parks come first," she said. "We try and limit the impact on visitors."

While commercial filming has brought a steady revenue stream to the county, feature films really bring in the big bucks. When "Mumford" was filmed in Sonoma County in 1999, the crew spent $5 million in two months.

But recently Hollywood has been taking its business out of state as places like Michigan, New Mexico and Canada offer better tax incentives for productions.

When California started its $100 million tax credit program in 2009, it was nearly the last state in the nation to offer the film industry such a deal, according to Beverly Lewis, chair of Film Liaison in California Statewide, or FLICS.

"Money had been hemorrhaging out of our state for years before we finally woke up," she said.

The Sonoma County Film Office works with FLICS to promote the area as a filming destination. The film office also helps productions secure filming permits and maintains a movie map that shows the locations of the 78 feature films that were made in the county.

"Compared with other counties, we are doing as much, if not more, to promote ourselves to the movie industry," Stone said. "We have limited resources, but we get a lot of bang for our buck."

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(c)2013 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

Visit The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) at www.pressdemocrat.com

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