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Business

Santa Barbara County Film Commission Reeling Over Possible Funding Cuts

Representatives say the agency generates much-needed revenue and publicity while playing a major supporting role for production companies

With Santa Barbara County facing a projected $73 million budget deficit next year, everything is on the chopping block. But if the revenue-generating county Film Commission is eliminated, member Geoff Alexander says, the county would only be shooting itself in the foot.

“We would send a very clear message to outside media production that Santa Barbara County isn’t supporting production,” he said. “It’s a substantial revenue generator, employer and brand builder, and (eliminating the commission) would not be in the best long-term interest of the county.”

Local media professionals and filmmakers created the Film Commission 15 years ago because there wasn’t a single point of contact for production companies looking to shoot in Santa Barbara, Alexander said. The commission assists with the permit process, refers local services, markets the county and acts as a liaison between the production and the local community.

Cutting the commission wouldn’t completely kill the business, he said, but it would have a chilling effect on local media production.

“When location scouts, producers and filmmakers call to ask for help pulling off a production in the area, there will be no one to pick up the phone and they will look elsewhere,” he said. “When you are a producer, you need to know where you can get local support because when you run into problem you end up burning money — that’s what we do is facilitate.”

Last year, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors debated cutting the commission entirely. Instead, it cut its investment to $50,000 this year, a $25,000 decrease from 2010. The board will decide next year’s budget in meetings from June 13 to 17. 

“There were one or two voices on the board talking about eliminating (us), which put us on alert,” Alexander said, adding that the board instructed the commission to better demonstrate its financial impact. “Now we are projecting a 15 percent growth, and we’re hoping that’s compelling.”

Last year, the commission brought in 85 productions and 85 days of shooting, generating a $1.72 million economic benefit for Santa Barbara. There were 102 productions in the county and 287 days of shooting, yielding a $7.9 million effect.

The economic impact includes the entirety of production expenses, excluding dollars spent throughout the community on film, hardware, props, plants, steel, lumber, paint, furniture, portable dressing rooms, toilets, generators, clothing, makeup, sound and lighting equipment, food and gasoline, according to the Association of Film Commissions International. It includes direct revenue such as permits, employment and lodging, as well as indirect revenue from things such as catering. The food caterers who purchase from the store represent the “ripple effect” that is usually two to three times larger than the economic impact.

Through April of this year, there have been 43 productions that have shot for 64 days in the city, resulting in a $1.53 million economic impact. In the county, there have been 79 productions that have shot for 272 days this year, yielding a $9.57 million impact.

“The Film Commission accounts for much of the TOT (transient occupancy tax), which goes directly into the general fund and pays for a variety of services,” said Bill Phelps, president of the Santa Ynez Valley Hotel Association. “I think it’s naive to think we’d continue getting the films we get without the commission. We need to facilitate.”

The transient occupancy tax is currently 10 percent (12 percent in Santa Barbara) of the daily rent that goes into the general fund. Recent movies filmed in the county such as It’s Complicated, There Will Be Blood, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Sideways and Seabiscuit not only bring in TOT for production teams but future tourists who are attracted by the movies.

A recent Abercrombie & Fitch shoot brought in a crew of more than 100 who booked 690 room nights for $153,000.

“There’s brand building that occurs because when people come to shoot in Santa Barbara they aren’t trying to make it look bad, it’s not the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen,” Alexander said. “The PR we get from this beautiful place is immense.”

Dozens of commercials have been shot at Joe Nolan’s ranch, which sits on the border of Los Olivos and Los Alamos. He said government should be promoting production because it brings much-needed business to these cities.

“I think Santa Barbara has nearly an infinite opportunity to be a location for commercials and films, and I think that it should not pull back on the reigns of its growth and let the horse run,” Nolan said.

Most of the benefit comes from word of mouth, said Phelps, who managed the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa when Sideways was being filmed. He said people see the images of the vineyards and scenery and want to visit, and the commission helps spread the word.

“It changed the dynamic of the tasting room, occupancy in the city and county went up, and people came because they saw the movie,” Phelps said, adding that the longevity of the movie blows his mind when people still ask about the specific tasting rooms and The Hitching Post.

“It created relationships with scouts who send more production companies and call us directly,” he said.

Production companies also bring business to hoteliers and restaurants during weekdays and the less popular times of year.

“Tourism is steady and also seasonal, but media production is during the off season and on weekdays,” Alexander said. “When hotels and other services most need the business, that’s when film crews are here.”

Tackling the budget is an emotional issue, Alexander said, adding that he doesn’t envy the task facing the county supervisors. Many people argue that maintaining education, law enforcement or mental health services are the most important, but Alexander says everyone — including the Film Commission — will have to sacrifice.

“There’s no outside agency like the Film Commission,” he said. “There’s less pressure on those social service providers when there is higher employment, and that’s what we bring.”

But keeping members of the community who suffer from an addiction or mental health disorder out of jails and hospitals cut costs down the line, said Wim Zerkaik, Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse director of administration.

“Clients with substance abuse issues often find themselves into the county’s healthcare or judicial system which costs seven to 10 times higher than helping them here,” Zerkaik said. “A dollar spent now
may save 10 dollars down the road.”

But most importantly and aside from the potential cost, social services such as CADA fulfill a moral obligation, he said.

“Providing our service satisfies moral issues by helping our neighbors and being better citizens,” Zerkaik said. 

But eliminating the Film Commission would have a significant long-term impact because of the revenue it generates, Alexander said.

“We understand the environment that we are in now from a fiscal perspective, but what we will always return to is that cutting this office back in terms of resources will negatively impact revenue sources for the county,” Alexander said. “It doesn’t make sense to cut something that will hurt in the long term.”

Noozhawk staff writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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