CITYWIDE — If the city of Santa Monica had a page on the Internet Movie Database — better known as IMDB.com — its credentials would be longer than most working actors, many of whom live or work in the city itself.
Be it Pacific Park’s Ferris wheel in the 2011 action movie “Battle: Los Angeles” or the Santa Monica Airport in disaster film “2012,” the city by the sea has been the face of and home to a number of the entertainment industry’s most recognizable film shoots, but like so many big Hollywood stars, the city has something of a reputation as a diva.
Santa Monica may look good on film, but location managers find it difficult to work there, citing excessive regulations and stricter requirements than anywhere else in Los Angeles County.
City Hall logged 750 film permits in the 2011-12 fiscal year and collected roughly $1 million in revenues from fees including the permit applications, special site fees and the cost paid by film companies for on-site public safety personnel, according to a recent staff report.
Those figures could double if restrictions on filming were loosened, some believe, bringing in more revenue from permit fees and indirect spending in local grocery stores to furnish supplies for the craft service tables, money to private people or businesses to rent a film location or many other incidental purchases required to keep stars happy and a production running smoothly.
That could win Santa Monica a bigger piece of a very rich pie — according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, the entertainment industry is directly and indirectly responsible for 586,000 jobs and is directly responsible for $47 billion in value added to the local economy.
Miles Henley, for one, is hesitant to film in Santa Monica unless it’s necessary.
Henley is a location manager for a major film company. He’s responsible for hunting down that perfect street to recreate a neighborhood from the 1960s, or transforming a church into a school for a graduation scene, but he says that although Santa Monica has a number of great locations outside of the pier and Downtown, industry folks don’t find them welcoming.
Filming in Santa Monica presents a number of logistical challenges, Henley said, because the city has extremely short filming hours and expensive public safety personnel. To extend those hours, the crew must get signatures from 90 to 100 percent of people or business owners within 250 feet of a shoot to prove that they’re on board with the disruption.
The hours can make it difficult or impossible to shoot at all, and the signatures can lead to extreme requests from neighbors who try to get film companies to make it worth their while.
People interested in filming in Santa Monica have a relatively brief window to get it done. Hours run from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., three hours shorter than nearby Los Angeles which runs from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Those three hours make all the difference, Henley said, because it gives a film crew the time it needs to set up and break down shoots while still clocking a full 12-hours of actual filming. When a crew has only 12 hours to work with, it makes it more difficult, particularly if they plan to use the same location over the course of multiple days.
“It stops us from shooting a full day at a full location. If I have to do a full company move at 8 a.m. and a few hours of filming, I have to figure a location into that,” Henley said. “If it’s a house we’re at for multiple days, I’m shot in the foot.”
Filming in Santa Monica is also more expensive than Los Angeles. Santa Monica requires that film companies pay over $100 an hour for supervision from on-duty police officers, whereas Los Angeles allows crews to hire retired police officers from the Los Angeles Police Department for half that much.
Companies also have to get far fewer signatures in Los Angeles for special shooting conditions, which gives flexibility to avoid those who would otherwise hold up the shoot.
“We can deal with any owner as long as we know we have the city behind us, and know what the laws are,” Henley said.
City Hall adopted its filming guidelines in February 2012 after a long process involving city departments and private organizations like Downtown Santa Monica Inc., a private organization that manages the Downtown for City Hall, and the Santa Monica Pier Corporation.
It was part of a move to centralize film permit approval and streamline the process, said Martin Pastucha, director of the Public Works Department.
City Hall took another step in that process Tuesday when the City Council approved an agreement with Film L.A. to take over the responsibility of coordinating film permits from department officials. Film L.A. is a private non-profit that coordinates film permits for 11 other cities in the Los Angeles area, keeping track of local requirements and providing on-site monitoring.
Although municipal personnel will still need to give final approval to any film permit, Film L.A. will be able to walk filmmakers through the application process, removing the responsibility from Santa Monica employees and giving industry officials an easy way to include Santa Monica in film shoots that involve multiple locations.
It will hopefully make Santa Monica an easier place to film, said Paul Audley, president of Film L.A.
“With Santa Monica coming into the system as one of 11 cities and eight school districts in the Film L.A. family, it will make it more attractive to the film industry because they can do it all at once in one application,” Audley said.
Audley also expects his company to shorten turn-around time on permit applications. Right now, filmmakers are confined to City Hall’s hours, roughly 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s also closed every other Friday. That, alongside a requirement to give several days notice before filming begins, makes it difficult to get applications approved on time to begin a shoot early in the week.
Film L.A. usually averages 48 to 72 hour approvals, Audley said, and already works with other municipalities with schedules similar to Santa Monica’s.
“It shouldn’t impact it a lot,” Audley said. “We have access, and if we know what their schedules are we can back it up and move forward more quickly.”
Film L.A. will also take a look at Santa Monica’s filming policies and make recommendations about how they can be more “film friendly.”
“Santa Monica has some of the more difficult restrictions for filming,” Audley said. “We will spend time in the system working it, and it is part of our job to go back and provide advice to the City Council to improve it from the city’s point of view and for filmmakers.”
Those recommendations will come out within the first year that Film L.A. works in Santa Monica.
How successful that is and what the outcome will be for filming in Santa Monica depends on one thing, Henley said.
“It all narrows down to whether the city and bureaucracy wants to embrace filming and support filming in the community and to what level they’ll go,” Henley said.