San Diego Business Journal

You can manufacture widgets, you can grind out sausages, you can even run a corner lemonade stand to save up for that skateboard, and you are considered a business. But introduce an artsy element to the mix and many folks think stardust, not spreadsheets.

It's an attitude that rankles Kathy McCurdy, vice president and director of features for the San Diego Film Commission, which oversaw a 2007 fiscal year that pumped more than $96 million into the regional economy. Yet, she said, film-related news here more often ends up in a news outlet's arts section, rather than the business pages.

But big business it is, she said. Here's the breakdown for money spent in San Diego for the 2007 fiscal year, ending June 30:

The bulk of the bucks came from television series , more than $86 million; print, $3.7 million; commercials, almost $2.5 million; features, $2 million; industrial or corporate film projects, almost $1.7 million; and student-related films, $70,700.

"There are 350 film commissions in the world now," said McCurdy. "Everybody wants a piece of the Hollywood pie."

The San Diego Film Commission was a pioneer, she said.
"We've been here for more than 30 years," she said.

Services Rendered

Among the services offered by the Film Commission: a streamlined film permit process; an on-call staff to run interference with local, state and federal governments, and the local communities; scouting and locations assistance, along with a location resource center, with 30,000 photos and community information; free resource guide, with 3,000 listings of local crew, talent and support services; and a hotline and Web site listing job opportunities and casting calls.

Among the perks offered to businesses: no permit fees; no charge for shooting at city, county and Port of San Diego-managed properties; discounted city of San Diego police services; and a hotel discount program, with more than 50 hotels that offer special film rates.

The lack of permit fees alone can save a producer about 3 percent to 5 percent of a project's budget, said McCurdy, while use of private properties are a bargain, compared to Los Angeles.

"Filming at an estate home in Hollywood is about $8,000 to $10,000 a day," she said. "But, in San Diego, we have estate homes that allow filming for a $2,000-to-$3,000-a-day range."

Attracting outside production to San Diego also benefits the locals, including providing jobs for film crews, heads in beds at hotels, customers at restaurants and area attractions.

"Building and enhancing the industry is what we are about , supporting local production companies that do commercials and corporate work, and employee-oriented videos for the new biotech companies," said McCurdy. "We are educating the up-and-coming people to stay here and realize that there are jobs for graphic designers, computer animation, and for shooting car commercials."

History Lessons

But, back in the early '70s, it was a different story. The popular TV series "Harry O" departed San Diego for Los Angeles after shooting only a few episodes, citing an unfriendly business climate. The show had generated more than $1.5 million and employed hundreds of locals as talent and crew, in addition to garnering positive exposure for the region, according to the Film Commission.

Faced with an unhappy business community, Wilson, with the support of the county Board of Supervisors and the Port of San Diego, in 1976 established the San Diego Motion Picture and Television Bureau , now known as the San Diego Film Commission , as a "one-stop shop" for San Diego's production industry.

In 1997, the Film Commission became an independent, nonprofit corporation and continues to be funded as an economic development program by the city, county and the Port.

McCurdy also is involved with the commission's education committee, which is committed to work force training. She participates in a business education partnership with local schools involved with multimedia, and has taught and lectured on the business aspects of TV and film.

"I give an on-location orientation lecture every semester at SDSU (San Diego State University), City College, Southwestern and Grossmont, because it's very different when they leave the classroom," said McCurdy. "They need to be guided in professional ways to comply with public safety, public impact, liability and community sensitivity concerns the same as any project."

While business has been thriving these days, McCurdy isn't sitting on her laurels.

"There are always ever-changing trends in this business," she said. "With the rapid pace of changing technology, we are all continuing to be students in this business. We have to keep up with all of that. If our region wants to pursue becoming a major production center, like Austin, Texas , our model , we would love to have more financial incentives from the city, county and Port."