Dear Sacramento

Greta Gerwig’s upcoming full-length film, 'Lady Bird,' showcases her hometown pride — but what does it mean for film-making in the Capital Region?

Back Longreads Mar 22, 2016 By Steven Yoder

Greta Gerwig, a Sacramento native and award-winning filmmaker and actress, won’t share many details about her upcoming project, a full-length independent film called “Lady Bird.” Except for one — where it’s being shot.

“In some ways, it’s a real love letter to Sacramento,” Gerwig says.

At least thirteen major movies have been filmed in and around Sacramento in the last twenty years. But none may have gotten as up close and personal with the city as “Frances Ha,” Gerwig’s 2012 feature, which she both wrote and starred in. Much of the part of the movie that takes place in Sacramento is filmed on-location at Gerwig’s parents’ home in River Park. Burr’s Fountain ice cream shop and the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento church play supporting roles.

Gerwig says that Sam Levy, “Frances Ha’s” cinematographer, loved shooting in the city and told her he wished he could do an entire film here. With “Lady Bird,” which Gerwig wrote, she’s giving him that chance.

But she wants to do more than shoot a full feature in her hometown — she’d like to help boost Sacramento as a filmmaking hub. The crew for “Frances Ha” shot for only a few days in the city. But “Lady Bird” will be set entirely here, and Gerwig foresees filming from mid-August to mid-October of this year.

It’s not as though the city hasn’t drawn big-time films before. The major movies shot here in the last two decades include Oscar winners like “Memoirs of a Geisha”, “Almost Famous”, and “American Beauty.”

The city and its surroundings offer filmmakers natural advantages, says Lucy Steffens, Sacramento’s Film Commissioner: The architecture ranges from “Anytown, USA” and sprawling agricultural fields, to the downtown cityscape and even the western look of Old Sacramento. The variety of bridge types here is found nowhere else in the state, and not many places can claim a topographical range that includes fall foliage, palm trees and rice paddies, says Steffens. And Gerwig says the mild weather extends the film-shooting season by months, compared to much of the rest of the country.

Still, California as a whole is wrestling to hold onto its film industry. In 1997, 18 of the top 25 box office movies were shot in the state. By 2014 that was down to seven, just ahead of the five in 2013.

At the root of that trend is money, or “runaway production.” According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of spring 2014, Canada, Puerto Rico and 39 states were offering tax breaks to attract filmmakers. “It’s all about incentives: ‘What can you give me to come to your area?’ That’s how film location managers think about it,” says Dee Ohliger, a film location scout who works in several counties north of Sacramento. Right now, some other states have better incentives than California, she says.

Under a new film and television tax credit program enacted in 2014, California offers 20- to 25-percent tax credits to films with a budget of $1 million or more. Productions shot outside the 30-mile Los Angeles radius get an additional 5-percent credit.

“… Sacramento is a character in the film and it has to be shot here.”

Greta Gerwig, writer and director, “Lady Bird”

But Georgia provides a 20- to 30-percent tax break and requires a minimum spend of only $500,000, making many small independent films eligible. Kentucky gives a 30-percent break with a tiny minimum spend of only $250,000. To the north, Canada’s Manitoba province offers a 50-percent credit and British Columbia a 35-percent one.

Film financiers are budget hawks — even a small difference in financial breaks matters. Gerwig ran up against that in getting backing for “Lady Bird.” “People were saying, ‘Well can you shoot it somewhere else [other than Sacramento]?’ And I said, ‘No! What’s the point of making a film about a place if you’re not shooting it in that place?’ Luckily the people I’m working with now really understand that Sacramento is a character in the film and it has to be shot there.”

Laurie Pederson, board president of the Capital Film Arts Alliance, thinks the city and region need to create financial incentives of their own. Right now the city essentially offers none, though Steffens says the film commission will sometimes pay for a day or two of hotel stays for location managers who come to scout.

That makes it tough for Sacramento to compete with other places that are luring filmmakers with serious money. San Francisco waives permit fees for filmmakers, covers the cost of up to four police officers a day for traffic control or security, provides free use of city-owned property for filming, and gives film crews 10- to 30-percent discounts on hotels, restaurants and car rentals, and smaller discounts on some airlines. (All benefits are capped at $600,000.) Los Angeles offers free use of any city-owned locations for filming and a few tax breaks. And Palm Springs offers $5,000 grants to qualified productions and waives permit fees.

Steffens says in her ideal world, the city would create its own financial teasers to compete. Her office has met with other city departments to discuss it, but no one has figured out how incentives would be paid for. “It needs to come out of a budget line-item somewhere,” Steffens says.

As for whether to make the state tax breaks more generous, Steffens says there’s a reason for the minimum spend of a million dollars. “It took a long time to get this whole incentive program going … In reality, if you have a $10,000 budget, what kind of incentive program do you want? How many jobs will you create?” The economic benefits of lower-budget films just aren’t there, she points out.

In fact, there’s an overarching controversy over the wisdom of movie and television tax breaks. The Motion Picture Association of America asserts that, nationally, the industry supports almost 2 million jobs, contributes $40 billion to the economy, and adds $16 billion to federal and state tax rolls. But an April 2014 analysis by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office found that the state’s film tax credits don’t pay for themselves, returning to state tax rolls only 65 cents on every dollar of tax credit spent. It also noted that subsidizing one industry has a distortionary effect on the economy and “could stoke a ‘race to the bottom’” among states. At least eight states have ended their film production incentive programs in the last few years, though a few like Hawaii and Nevada have ramped up their own.

Beyond the state-level hurdles, Sacramento’s other challenge may be offering filmmakers enough local qualified technicians to fill out a crew — from camera people to specialists in costumes, casting, and hair and makeup. For those in the business, there’s generally not enough work in the area to keep them going, so many emigrate. “Sacramento is my hometown; I love it,” says film location scout Brian De Lucia. “But there’s no work in Sacramento.” He just moved to the Bay Area in part because in Sacramento he rarely received calls for film gigs.

That’s why most filmmakers who shoot here bring their own crew and then augment it with local technicians, says Steffens. Using out-of-town crew members, of course, means spending more money on hotels and transportation.

Gerwig envisions a solution. For “Lady Bird” and future films, she’s planning to use as many local union crewmembers as possible. But she’d also like to foster a stronger applicant pool by offering apprenticeships with her experienced crew to locals interested in the movie business. That will help her for future shoots — and make the area a draw for other filmmakers, she thinks. “If we can develop a model that works, that will ultimately help keep budgets down and also create a kind of mini-industry in Sacramento,” she says.

That idea isn’t completely new. The 2010 action plan published as part of the city’s For Arts’ Sake planning process included a recommendation that the city’s film commission develop opportunities for apprenticeships with out-of-town film crews. It also recommended that the city fund a full-time film commissioner, says Pederson. (Steffens works part-time as a film commissioner, and her office is housed within the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.)

Pederson says none of the planning recommendations related to attracting filmmakers to the city were acted on because there was no money to pay for them. “But all of them are still valid,” she says, and they shouldn’t be scrapped. (Several calls to the mayor’s office to obtain the full set of recommendations were not returned.)

Gerwig’s projects could revive some of those ideas for drawing movie-makers to the city. She’s got the star power to do it: She won best actress at the 2012 Dublin International Film Festival, was nominated for a 2014 Golden Globe, and has won several other film critics’ awards and been nominated for a score of others.

Beyond that, she hopes to inspire other directors and writers to think of Sacramento as a character around which to write scripts. “I think the way that these things work … is that once a place becomes viable and there’s enough crew and the tax breaks make sense, then people start using and creating for the place,” Gerwig says.

In coming home, she’s taking after some of her favorite filmmakers who cast their stories in places they love. Those include the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who set their movies in Belgium, and Ingmar Bergman, who filmed on the islands around Sweden.

“Their films feel like those places,” she says. “The more you can shoot locations that have real deep meaning for you, the better the film is.”


Visitor Laurie Pederson (not verified)March 22, 2016 - 9:54pm

As the President of the Capital Film Arts Alliance, I thank Comstocks for your enlightening article. The CFAA applauds Greta's dedicated efforts to aid in the development of the creative economy here in Sacramento through her films. We are committed to assisting in any way that we can to support all productons in our region, and to share local resources and contacts, communication and more. for more info.

Tom Hart (not verified)March 23, 2016 - 10:14am

That is great news. I am a member of SAG and I am interested in submitted my headshot and resume to be considered for Greta's film. How do I submit?

Visitor Sally Forcier (not verified)April 14, 2016 - 5:27pm

Forcier Casting has been casting local and major projects in the Sacramento and surrounding areas over 16 years and we are very thrilled for Greta's dedication to bring Sacramento to life in her film ~ looking forward to seeing the work come here and happy to help in any way!