If you want to close a few blocks in the Tenderloin so your down-on-his-luck superhero can brood in the rain, you have to go through the San Francisco Film Commission—specifically, Susannah Greason Robbins, executive director of city hall’s cinematic delegation, in whose hands rests authority over those all-important shooting permits.
Since taking the helm in 2010, Robbins has brought more big-name film projects to the city than we’ve seen since Hitchcock’s heyday. Shooting days have risen a whopping 70 percent since 2009: Woody Allen spent weeks coaxing an Oscar-winning performance out of Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine; Tim Burton shut down Grant Street for his December biopic, Big Eyes; Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson muscled around Russian Hill for the 2015 earthquake thriller San Andreas; Paul Rudd hung around the Presidio for Marvel’s upcoming Ant Man; and even the new Terminator has San Francisco as its backdrop.
That influx of projects has meant an influx of serious cash. Productions that took advantage of the city’s rebate program—a $600,000 reimbursement—dropped $5 million here in the last fiscal year, and those account for only 7 of the 584 shoots that took place in town (productions that didn’t take the rebate aren’t in the public record). As for job creation, the boon is more obvious: Film productions call for electricians, carpenters, photographers, teamsters, prop makers, caterers, makeup artists, and more—even when they’re only in town for a few days.
There’s more tinsel for the taking, but San Francisco is an underdog in this game. “We have to compete with Louisiana and Georgia, where they offer tax credits of up to 35 percent,” Robbins says. “We’ve watched all those middle-class jobs leave. If we want those jobs, we have to play ball.”
While hobnobbing with big production houses is in the job description, most of the commission’s work involves serving as a liaison between said hotshots and the city organs—SFPD, public works, SFMTA—to make sure that moviemaking doesn’t impede your daily commute.
When it does, Robbins and her crew are faced with an irate citizenry. In July, prominent attorney John Keker blew his top when San Andreas closed streets near his Russian Hill home (“Your film commission has gone mad!” he wrote to the Mayor’s Office); then rumors of street closures at Fisherman’s Wharf created another tremor of outrage. In October, locals groused when HBO’s Looking devoured parking in Potrero Hill. District 10 supervisor Malia Cohen has heard so many complaints that she has put forward a proposal requiring shoots to provide 72 hours of notice. “I’m certainly not against filming in San Francisco,” says Cohen, “but I’ve heard the people, and it’s my job to advocate for them.” The commission tries its best to maintain neighborly relations, but there are a hundred other bases to cover in expediting a shoot, and its staff is only three “and a half” women, says Robbins. No one can be everywhere at once.
Despite that, San Francisco is rehabbing its Hollywood image. “People said S.F. would be harder [to shoot in] than New York or L.A., but really it’s not,” says Sarah Condon, executive producer of Looking. Filming elsewhere, she says, just wouldn’t be the same. “Looking is location-based. Sex and the City is New York; Entourage is L.A.; we’re here.” For Helen Robin, a New York producer and perennial Woody Allen collaborator, San Francisco is cramped, contentious, and ill prepared for the rigors of shooting. And it’s totally worth it. “Woody thought San Francisco would be great, and at first I thought, ‘Oh god.’ But now if somebody asked me, I’d say, ‘Yes, shoot in San Francisco. You’ll get a lot of help from the Film Commission.’”
Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco