"Filmmaker's Paradise:
Beautiful Bridges, Hellish Hills and Sensational Skylines
Make San Francisco the Perfect Place to Make Movies"

by Susan Dyer Reynolds, Casting Connection Magazine, February 2002

Many years before Los Angeles became known as the movie-making capital of the world, the Bay Area held the title of the first true Hollywood. It is widely believed by many historians that when Leland Stanford asked photographer Eadweard Muybridge to come up with a way to photograph horses in motion in 1872, the stage was set for film as we know it today.

"After Muybridge filmed the horse's movement, they started making shorts," says Scott Trimble, the creator of the website "Northern California Movies." "In the 1880s, at Pine and Kearny, they showed films to a paying audience for the first time."

Scott's website is a comprehensive resource that lists over 1,200 films and television shows made in Northern California, searchable by county or by title, and offering photographs of locations, cast and crew information, and images of original movie posters. Although he makes his living as a film location manager, he says that the site is a five-year labor of love and is constantly growing.

"I started it in 1997 before I got into the business," states Scott. "I love San Francisco and I love movies, so the site made perfect sense. Then I expanded it to include the whole Bay Area, then all of Northern California."

Scott points out that the Fremont city of Niles was the hub of silent movies in the early 1900s, making the Bay Area the first true Hollywood. "Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton worked in Niles, and Bronco Billy made over 400 films there," he explains. In fact, in 1912, Niles became the home of Essanay Studios, one of the first West Coast motion picture companies. Essanay made over 300 westerns in and around Niles, and Charlie Chaplin made some of his classic films for the company. Including his 1915 masterpiece, "The Tramp," which brought in a staggering one million dollars for the studio that year.

In 1923, the Bay Area made movie history once again when Austrian-born director Erich von Stroheim, decided to shoot a film based on the 1899 Frank Norris naturalist novel, "McTeague," entirely on location. For his masterpiece, "Greed," von Stroheim used a San Francisco building at 611 Laguna and Hayes to create his middle-class turn-of-the-century neighborhood, while McTeague confessed his dentistry sin at the Cliff House Restaurant, and 595 Hayes Street served as Frenna's. In the article, The San Francisco Building That Made Film History, by William M. Drew, the author points out that von Stroheim became one of the first filmmakers to use natural interiors in a feature film and that, during "Greed," he "revolutionized visual narration with his deep-focus shot of the street from the upstairs window."

Al Jolson spoke the first words on film in the 1927 classic, "The Jazz Singer," when he said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing yet." One of the scenes takes place in a popular San Francisco nightclub called Coffee Dan's, which was filmed on O'Farrell and Powell Streets, adding yet another milestone to Bay Area film history.

Over the years, close to one thousand features have been shot in the Bay Area, as well as numerous documentaries and independent films. San Francisco has been the backdrop for some of the most famous scenes ever shot, including Kim Novak's jump into the bay in the 1957 Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Vertigo," Sam Spade's partner Miles Archer meeting his death in the Stockton tunnel in 1941's "The Maltese Falcon," the crew of the Enterprise setting down their ship in a vacant field in "Star Trek IV" (1986) and Christian Slater interrogating Brad Pitt while hanging out at the Flatiron building in the 1995 film "Interview with a Vampire."

The rest of the Bay Area has also had its share of film crews. From Sonoma County ("The Birds," "American Graffiti," "Phenomenon," "Scream," "Mumford") to Alameda County ("High Crimes," "Bicentennial Man," "The Rainmaker," "The Matrix," "A Smile Like Yours") to Santa Clara County ("Harold and Maude," "The Right Stuff," "Shrek," "Raising Cain").

San Jose Film Commissioner Joe Okane says that production companies that shoot in his city are usually eager to return. "We have a very cooperative community," he explains, "When we needed to close off four blocks downtown, we were able to do that. We also had "ED tv" here in 1999, and managed to get 1,800 extras at a San Jose Sharks hockey game to scream on cue! The Sharks' organization was very cooperative. We even managed to close three and a half miles of freeway once for a Clint Eastwood film."

While San Jose hasn't had a big film come to town in a while, Joe isn't worried, because he has seen these downturns before. However, there is one thing that worries him: the number of films being moved to Canada, where production companies can take advantage of incentives and get around paying residuals.

"It's getting ridiculous," Joe says, "I mean, the movie 'Pasadena' was filmed in Canada!"

He is hopeful that a new program, announced by the State of California and set to take effect in 2004, will keep more films in California by offering tax credits for filmmakers and allowing them to write off 15% of their expenses.

"For example, if they had to hire 30 California workers, they could write off part of that as an expense," Joe explains.

More important, Joe says, is legislation being proposed by L.A. unions that would impose a tariff on production companies that shoot in Canada, forcing them to pay the incentives they receive to the United States government.

"The future still looks bright," Joe continues, "We have people scouting San Jose right now, and, with the bad economy in Silicon Valley, it's cheaper for them to stay in a hotel here now than it is in Canada."

Scott Trimble agrees that Canada has cut in to the filmmaking pie in the Bay Area, not unlike pre-Hollywood Los Angeles did years ago, an irony not lost on many members of the Bay Area film community.

"They touted their climate and offered incentives," Scott says, "And more and more films started moving from the Bay Area to LA"

But he thinks that other events have contributed to the current Bay Area filmmaking slowdown as well.

"Since the events of September 11th, we have seen a decrease in movies being made in general," Scott explains, "And the recession and last year's SAG strike threat hurt things, and we haven't fully recovered. If you look at San Francisco in the fall of 2000, we had six or seven features being shot here, plus "Nash Bridges" and some indie films. Last year was much lighter and "Nash" was canceled, however, things are starting to look up. "The Incredible Hulk," a movie by Ang Lee (director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") is set to start shooting around the Bay Area in February, and we still have commercials and small films."

The Bay Area has, in fact, become a hot bed of talent in the independent film world, and this year is being represented by several movies at the famed Sundance Film Festival including "By Hook or By Crook" (Harry Dodge and Silas Howard), "Cherish" (Finn Taylor), and "Teknolust," (Lynn Hershman-Leeson).

Scott Trimble sums it up simply. "People love San Francisco — the hills, the buildings, the bridges, the whole look. Some of the greatest films ever have been made in San Francisco. We have ups and downs, but the bottom line is that people will always want to make movies here."

Susan Dyer Reynolds grew up in the Bay Area and has been a professional writer for over 10 years. She can be reached at susan310@pacbell.net. To browse a list of movies and television shows filmed in the Bay Area, visit "Northern California Movies" at www.norcalmovies.com

©2002 Casting Connection