by Erin Allday, Press Democrat, 21 July 2002


Examples of money spent during film projects in Sonoma County:
  • Tiny independent film, two days: $500
  • Larger independent film, one week: $8,200
  • National telephone company commercial, four days: $20,000
  • National car commercial, two weeks: $200,000
  • Feature film ("The Animal"), five days: $550,000
  • Feature film ("Mumford"), two months: $5 million

  • Bumping along a dusty road on a Sonoma County animal preserve, John Roberts pointed to a herd of Watusi cattle, their hides shining in the setting sun.

    "Now those are movie cows," Roberts said to the film industry pros piled into the back of his truck, their cameras focused on the animals.

    Roberts, operations manager at the Safari West animal preserve, was leading about two dozen location scouts on a "fam" tour — that's movie-speak for a familiarization trip, when the scouts check out the local scenery to find spots for future movies and commercials.

    It was only the second such tour in the county and the first one organized by the Sonoma County Film Office, the one-person department charged with bringing movie and other commercial projects to the region.

    "It was kind of like a maiden voyage for the film office," said county film commissioner Catherine DePrima, who also participated in the first tour, in Petaluma last year. "That's all that we're about, is promoting Sonoma County."

    Though just a tiny contributor to Sonoma County's overall tourism industry — bringing in about $2 million of the $900 million spent by visitors annually — DePrima is always on the lookout for the next big movie deal. And there's always the hard-to-value glamour of being associated with Hollywood.

    Sonoma County at-large has been a favored location for Hollywood productions for decades, serving as a backdrop for dozens of movies, from silent epics to giant summer blockbusters. But there's plenty of room for the industry to grow, DePrima said, which is where the fam tours come in. They're organized to pitch Sonoma County to a group of scouts who can then promote the area to producers.

    The county may be well-known and oft-used by the Hollywood film industry, but it's not usually the world-famous vineyards that producers are interested in.

    Instead, Sonoma County is known as an "anywhere" area — its small towns and winding roads, its foggy coastline and rugged hills, can be made to look like just about any place in the world.

    Downtown Sonoma can substitute for Midwest America. Luscious vineyards can become northern Italy. Petaluma can turn into a New England town. Safari West can replace Africa.

    "This would make a great place for a car commercial," whispered one location scout, snapping a picture of the winding road framed by dry yellow shrubs.

    Another scout imagined a photo shoot for safari-themed clothes. Maybe Victoria's Secret would want to take pictures for its animal-print lingerie, another suggested. One scout spotted a pond with an old wooden pier and imagined a boy and his dad fishing — a scene right out of a movie.

    "There are lots of possibilities here," said Richard Prince, a production manager based in Los Angeles, wandering around the pond at Safari West. "If we can work the animals in, even better."

    Typically, film productions aren't looking for African landscapes when they come to Sonoma County. They want small towns, country roads and rural charm, DePrima said. The county's main competition is Marin and Monterey, DePrima said, because both areas have a similar look.

    "This can be an any-town kind of place," said Scott Trimble, a location manager based in Novato. "It's got so many different kinds of land that you could do just about anything. There's a lot of flexibility here."

    Being an "anywhere" locale brings a variety of film projects to the county, from commercials big and small to multi-million-dollar movies.

    The crew for a car commercial filmed in Sonoma County last year spent $200,000 over a two-week period — $5,000 on hotel rooms alone. When the feature film "Mumford" shot in Sonoma a few years ago, the crew spent roughly $5 million in two months.

    "Hotel rooms, local hires, catering, location fees — it's just direct money pumped into the economy," said DePrima, whose office works with a budget of just over $100,000 in county money.

    Most of her job revolves around working with location scouts, who usually serve as independent middlemen on film projects. Producers will call up a scout and say what kind of landscape they're looking for, and scouts will find it. At Safari West, many of the scouts were taking pictures so they could add the location to their portfolios for future projects.

    DePrima works with the scouts to point out how Sonoma County might fit in a movie. Scouts often call her up requesting a location, and she tries to hunt one down.

    Film crews are in Sonoma County almost constantly, De-Prima said. An independent film is being shot in downtown Petaluma all this month and car commercials are almost always filming on Sonoma County backroads.

    Of course, the giant feature films that rake in millions for local businesses aren't common, and there have been lean years. At least eight major films were shot in Sonoma County in the past six years — four in 1997 alone — but none so far this year.

    Most people involved in the local film industry said they've seen a notable downturn since Sept. 11, due to both the terrorist attacks and the volatile economy. But they said filming is already starting to pick up.

    Dozens of popular feature films have been shot in Sonoma County over the years. De-Prima has created a movie map — available at the film office's Web site at www.sonomacountyfilm.com — that shows the spots where feature films were made in the county.

    Tourists travel from all over the world to see where movies like "American Graffiti" and "The Birds" were made. In 2000, two films — "Bandits" and "The Animal" — filmed back-to-back in Sonoma County.

    In fact, the thrill of being involved in Hollywood productions is a big part of why the film industry is so popular in Sonoma County. Even if it doesn't draw much money to the community, it certainly can draw a lot of attention.

    That's especially true when the giant film crews and cameras show up — and the giant stars. Even if few get to rub shoulders with Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton when they were filming "Bandits" it can still be fun just knowing they were here.

    But as exciting as it might seem to have a movie or commercial filming in your hometown, not everyone loves having a movie production in their back yard.

    "You're working with people who don't know what it's like to film something," said Paul Martin, a producer based in Sonoma. "The hardest part is convincing people that film companies are good. They'd rather you film down the street, not in front of their house or business."

    Film crews, especially large ones that require hundreds of extras and production workers, can put a heavy burden on a small town. When filming is especially intensive, an entire downtown might have to shut down — not a move that is likely to make the business community happy. Sonoma actually bans filming in its downtown area between Thanksgiving and Jan. 1.

    Still, business owners recognize that the benefits are usually worth the trouble, said Samantha Freitas, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association.

    "For the film industry to do their business they have to shut down streets or impact existing business, but overall the benefits outweigh everything else," Freitas said. "They patronize our businesses, they shop at our stores, they eat at our restaurants and they stay in our hotels. They put money into our downtown economy."

    ©2002 Press Democrat