SM PIER — The lights haven’t been shining as brightly, the cameras rolling a bit more slowly and the action subdued a few notches.
A picturesque city that’s been a Hollywood favorite for decades, playing the role of the typical sunny and beautiful Southern California beach town, has seen interest wavering from film production companies over the past several years.
It’s a trend that’s reflected in greater Los Angeles as moviemakers flock to other states and countries where shooting could mean a savings as much as $23 million per piece.
City Hall in 2007 issued 620 permits for filming on public property in Santa Monica, dropping down to 545 in 2008. Nearly 320 permits have been issued this year to date.
But city officials aren’t ready to hit the panic button yet.
“We don’t know if it’s that much of a drop,” Kathy Ruff, the permit specialist for City Hall’s Public Works Department, said. “It still feels busy in our office.”
Motion picture filming has been down at the Santa Monica Pier, which last year served as the set for both “My Sister’s Keeper” and “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” The pier averages about three movie shoots every year but there have been none scheduled this year, Aurora Astorga, the operations manager for the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp., said.
However, reality show filming and still photography shoots have remained steady at the pier.
“I know they’re not shooting in L.A. anywhere,” Astorga said. “I just talked to a location manager and he hasn’t had a job in six months.”
The decline is shared by cities across the region, passed up by filmmakers who opt for other areas that afford tax benefits for motion pictures that could save millions of dollars.
The Los Angeles area has lost its market share since the mid 1990s when filmmaking peaked locally, dropping in 10 out of the last 12 years since, Philip Sokoloski, the manager of communications for Film LA, said. The nonprofit organization handles the permitting for the cities of Los Angeles, Lancaster, Palmdale, Diamond Bar and the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.
Much of the lost production has gone to Canada but other states have followed suit by offering various tax credits.
Sokoloski estimates that for a film that would run $100 million to complete in Los Angeles, the cost would be $9 million less in New York and about $23 million less in Connecticut.
“Economics are driving the runway production phenomenon,” he said.
The cost to receive a permit varies by location. City Hall charges $250 to film at the pier or the Third Street Promenade, but charges $1,250 to shoot on the beach. A separate permit is also required for certain locations, including within the Bayside District, Santa Monica College, pier and Santa Monica Airport.
The permits for the pier also vary depending on the type of film, ranging from $250 for nonprofits to $1,500 for a commercial. Man on the street interviews cost about $500.
Filming at the airport, which can only take place outside of the runway and taxiway, is down about 20 percent over the past year, Rod Merl, the senior administrative analyst for the airport, said.
Much of the filming takes place in the hangars, which still require permits from both City Hall and the airport administration.
“I think like everything else in the last year things have gone down,” Merl said. “I think probably more in films than magazines.”
Santa Monica College, which has served as the set for “The Kid” and “Primary Colors” has similarly seen a decline in shoots, though the campus is seldom used since filming is only allowed when classes are not in session. Permits start at $3,500.
“The price didn’t change at all and the requirements didn’t change at all,” he said. “I am still getting calls but a lot of people come in and look and don’t want to book.”
Not all areas of the city have been affected.
The Bayside District Corp., which manages Downtown including the Third Street Promenade, issued 88 permits during fiscal 2007-08 and 114 in 2008-09.
The private/public management company charges fees ranging from $100 to $2,500 a day.
“I think part of why our filming program has not see a decline is because we respond very quickly to filming and event requests and we make it easy for location scouts and production companies to set up filming in our area,” Debbie Lee, the marketing manager for Bayside, said.
There could be changes in the future as state officials just put together a $500 million incentive program over the next five years to keep filmmaking in California, Sokoloski said.
One of the drawbacks with the program is that it might not qualify some of the bigger projects that cost more than $75 million.
“It’s a great crack in the door so we can see the benefits of the program in the state and hopefully benefit the rationale for expansion,” he said.