A Rising Tide: San Diego Makes a Pitch to Be California’s Next Big Filmmaking Destination

Think “San Diego” and the first thing that comes to mind is glorious weather, white-sand beaches and authentic Mexican food.

Turns out these features, beyond contributing to the city’s reputation as a vacation destination, are helping to promote San Diego’s budding film industry, backed by the support of the city’s council members and government officials. Moviemakers may come for the locations—deserts, mountains, and 70 miles of coastline—but they stay for the surprisingly film-friendly, collaborative environment.

Before getting involved in the city’s film department, Filming Program Manager Brandy Shimabukuro was creating support programs for small businesses with the Gaslamp Quarters, a nonprofit merchants’ association in downtown San Diego. That work, she says now, closely mirrored San Diego’s burgeoning film initiatives: supporting a community of artists, via a spirited exchange of ideas and a mutual desire to find a common solution among major studios and low-budget filmmakers alike.

What of the perks? California instated its current tax incentive program, the California Film & Television Tax Program 2.0, in 2015. Beyond awarding $300 million a year in funding to filmmakers, the state offers an extra incentive for films shot outside of Los Angeles County. Accordingly, San Diego—traditionally the tousle-haired stepchild of filming hubs L.A. and San Francisco—has been quietly expanding its appeal to filmmakers. The city hosted dozens of productions in the past year, most notably Fox’s scripted TV series Pitch, and the Netflix original series Ingobernable, set to air March 24.

We spoke to Shimabukuro about San Diego’s rapid rate of development and its still untapped potential. Like her, we’re excited to see what the future holds.

Port of San Diego. Photograph by Brent Haywood

Tiger Tam, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What are some unique features of San Diego’s environment that moviemakers should consider?

Brandy Shimabukuro (BS): We have locations that, in my opinion, could represent both “Anywhere U.S.A.” or distinctly San Diego, so it really fits a multitude of different types of productions. We have deserts that a lot of folks don’t think about. We have places from Oceanside South down to Imperial Beach, to the mountains up in Julian and Santa Ysabel and the deserts of Anza-Borrego and Borrego Springs and Ocotillo Wells. Our urban core has such authenticity; it’s a rich tapestry of an urban background in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily think of in a metropolitan area. People don’t necessarily know about San Diego’s historic architecture and places like Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarters and the urban contemporary of the East Village. Of course all this is backed by Southern California’s fantastic weather. With the exception of this particularly rainy year, we typically get about 320 days of solid, sunny, shiny days that make on-location filming key.

MM: I’m sure most people immediately think of the beach, so it’s great to hear you mention deserts and mountains…

BS: When you come to this region you should be aware that there are opportunities south of the border when it comes to filmmaking as well. We are a bi-national megaregion because our cities to the south of the border, the Cali Baja area to Tijuana, are sister cities. We’ve got folks down at the Baja Film Commission who are doing incredible work. There are job opportunities, craft opportunities, production services opportunities and studio opportunities with our partners down south.

We do have a very talented crew here in San Diego and we’re trying to support the industry by bringing back more jobs and skilled workers. So we have city leadership that’s been extremely film-friendly with looking at waiving film permitting fees and use of locations on city public property. All our partners within the county of San Diego are looking at how we as a region can be more film-friendly and provide more incentives to attract productions here and keep them here.

Moviemakers set up at San Diego’s Tuna Harbor Park

MM: Can you also talk a little bit about the rental houses or services that are available?

BS: We have a handful of houses that offer rental equipment. We also have about a dozen different smaller studio spaces. One of the things that we’re looking at, long-term, is how we can attract more studio houses or studio facilities that can sustain large-scale productions to San Diego. That is one thing that we are lacking. But, there’s an opportunity there to really reinforce the economic impact to the region, because with studios come jobs, and of course more film tourism when we can sustain large-scale and high-profile productions.

Our rental houses have been here for decades. Some, like San Diego Film Equipment and RentCine, have been here for such a long time, catering to productions large and small—everything from student filmmakers and small hand-held equipment that they might need, to productions with RVs and honey wagons and motor homes that folks can take out.

MM: Under California’s new tax credit program, do you think that San Diego filmmakers can compete with Los Angeles and San Francisco for credits?

BS: Absolutely. The California Film Commission has a whole team that can be there as a support for applying for the program. They walk moviemakers through the budgeting process and the application process. It’s not nearly as onerous as people think it might be. We, as your local contact, say, “Here are the resources for you.” That Film and TV Tax Program is just phenomenal. It’s been amazing for the region. We’ve definitely seen the fruits of what that can support because we’ve had scripted television series come down to San Diego that we wouldn’t necessarily have had if that tax credit program wasn’t in place at the state level. While San Diego doesn’t have tax incentives specific to the city, we do actively promote the state incentives, because it’s such a robust program. We are fully in support of it and we hope that in the years to come they grow it.

MM: Do you think that in the future that San Diego could develop any city-specific incentives?

BS: I would never say anything is off the table. I think it’s more a matter of having the resources to sit down and look at what other cities and destinations are doing and how we can be one step above that. And I think a lot of it comes down to, not necessarily just the financial incentives, but also the film-friendly mentality of saying, “Let’s find a solution that’s mutually beneficial.” A lot of times we’ll have productions come down here who want a specific location or who want to do a particular scene that’s a little bit challenging. And our film office is here to work with different agencies and jurisdictions to make that happen. It goes a long way.

MM: What are some of the benefits are of filming in San Diego that a bigger city like L.A. lacks?

BS: Because we’re something of a boutique market when it comes to filming, we have the flexibility and the privilege of being more nimble. We’ve got a core group of folks who have expertise, working on many different film productions over the decades, whether it’s public safety officials, the San Diego Fire Department, or police. We have these different partners throughout the community who can quickly come together to make productions and get the scene that they need. From a tech standpoint, we want to have online resources that are available 24/7—though a lot of times I do get phone calls at two o’clock in the morning from international filmmakers, and I will respond. It does really happen. We’ve got city leadership with Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the San Diego City Council who have pledged their support of film industry. They’ve invested in not only short-term solutions right now, but also looking long-term at questions like, “What are some other opportunities? Are there some niches that we could fulfill that would differentiate San Diego? What’s next?”

And our lifestyle and our economy can really support the film industry because of our investments in biotech, start-ups and innovation technology. They’ve termed it the innovation economy.

MM: What is the indie community in San Diego like?

BS: I’ve been in place now with the office for about a year, and the thing that’s been impressed upon me is the passion and the vitality of the local filmmakers here. There is such a strong community of filmmakers with entrepreneurial spirit. They’re building together a community from scratch. We have local groups like Film Consortium San Diego, the San Diego Film Foundation and San Diego Filmmakers, who are regularly hosting workshop events and film festivals. We just came off the inaugural San Diego Film Week, which was an incredible event that brought together the collaboration of about seven of the largest film festivals within in the region—the San Diego International Film Festival, Pac Arts, the Latino Film Festival, the G.I. Film Festival. All these different groups came together in the spirit of promoting and building each other up along with the whole film community. I love that there are genre film festivals like the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival. I love that the filmmakers are so passionate and so wedded to their theme or their mission.

Fox series Pitch shooting at San Diego’s Petco Park

MM: It sounds like education is key, not just for filmmakers but for the public to become more aware and more inclined to support moviemaking in general.

BS: Yes, and speaking of education, San Diego has a number of independent film schools that have accredited arts programs focusing on film, media, gaming and animation. Everything from photography and television to news, broadcast news, television and film… then there are also other programs. Calit2 is a really interesting program because it focuses on audio and phonic arts; there are graduate students in it who worked on the post-production of Inception.

MM: Is the end goal to grow to compete with other major California filmmaking hubs? Or do you envision that San Diego will preserve its small-town feel and boutique market?

BS: I feel like no one should be limiting our potential. Ten, 20 years ago, no one thought that San Diego would be the hub of craft beer making, and that’s where we are right now; it’s one of our strongest industries. Same thing for biotech some two decades ago. So, who’s to say? I’m of the mind that we are here to provide the foundation to get us to that point where we could be one of the biggest, if not the most prosperous, and certainly the most film-friendly destination that you could want to be. We have a lot of work to do to get there, that’s for sure, and I think part of our role is finding those opportunities for growth.

MM: How would you advise San Diego filmmakers to profit from all the opportunities and the resources the city provides?

BS: Stay engaged. Be active. Get involved in different film organizations. Take advantage of the countless events taking place: San Diego Film Awards, the many different film festivals. Network, because that’s the way to get into this local industry. MM

Images courtesy of the City of San Diego.

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