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If there's one piece of cinematic work that defines Fresno, it's "Fresno."
As in the miniseries.
The popular 1980's nighttime soap spoof celebrates its 20th anniversary next year. But county film officials aren't willing to settle for some dusty long-format starring Carol Burnett and Dabney Coleman. The Fresno Film Commission is on the look out for its very own "Sideways."
Over the past two and a half years, the Fresno County Film Commission (under the Office of Tourism) has been stepping up efforts to attract production crews to the county. Its proximity to Hollywood and diverse landscape make it an excellent choice for a film shoot, say county officials. They hope to bring more film production to Fresno, and the economic development that comes with it.
"There has been a great gap in people's understanding of locations that our area has to offer," said Kristi Johnson, Film Coordinator for Fresno County. "It stems from the fact that the majority of folks have experienced Fresno from the highway. A lot of our locations, especially our unique locations, were not well known."
Johnson, along with Director of Tourism Gigi Gibbs, is trying to put Fresno on the map of locations scouts turn to for a variety of settings. Because of the county's diversity- cities, country, lakes, and mountains- it can appeal to a wide range of projects.
"Some people want a windy road with forest trees, some people want a windy road with wide open plains. We have both of those," Johnson explained. "It really is a matter of someone knowing everything that a location has to offer."
Despite its wide variety of locales and proximity to Hollywood, Fresno and the rest of California are at a distinct disadvantage. Union contracts stipulate that if a film production moves outside a 30-mile radius of Hollywood ("the zone"), crews are paid increased wages and a higher per diem. Other states and some countries have successfully attracted film production by offering tax breaks or other incentives to film outside the zone. A bill in the State Assembly, AB 777, seeks to make California more competitive by offering tax breaks of up to 12% of production costs for films shot in the state.
In the meantime, the Film Commission is raising Fresno's visibility by providing fast service to scouts and filmmakers who look at the area.
"Because of our relationship with the county, we know how many crops we have. Sometimes we'll get a call for something we're not familiar with and we'll call [the agriculture commission] and he'll say 'Yeah we have 40 acres of that over here,'" recounted Johnson.
Matching location to a project can be difficult for a number of reasons.
"Some of the funniest requests we get have to do with agriculture where they'll call and say, 'We need corn fields this high and we're filming in two weeks,' and it's Thanksgiving. Well, it's like corn isn't that high right now," laughed Gibbs.
And sometimes the artistic temperament gets in the way.
"Sometimes you get an artist that says- and the artist is usually the filmmaker, the director- 'I need this look' and even if it's the same here as in Iowa, if he's dreaming of a corn field in Iowa, it doesn't matter," said Johnson.
The Film Commission has had success this year landing three episodes of the PBS series "Garden Smart," a UK Channel 4 documentary, and SiTV's "Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner."
"Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner," is a finalist in the California On Location Awards, which recognize films that use California as part of the storytelling process. The shoot in Fresno included several area restaurants in different parts of town, and is up against "Deadwood," "24," and "CSI." The awards will place Fresno the location in front of film scouts and movie studios.
More film production would mean more tourism dollars for the county.
"It's basically outside money coming in to the community and it's hiring local people, it's eating out in restaurants, it's staying in hotel rooms, it's buying services, catering, lots of equipment rental," explained Gibbs. While there are no official numbers on the economic impact of film production, Gibbs and Johnson note that hotel rooms, meals, and other services quickly add up.
"People are excited if a big star's involved, but he's not going to spend any more money than a smaller star. So for economic development purposes it really doesn't matter. The longer they're here the bigger the impact. The more people they bring the bigger the impact," said Gibbs.
"We're still hoping for the big one. We welcome the small ones and those are great, they keep it going," agreed Johnson.
"You never know when you're going to land it," said Gibbs. "We feel it's only a matter of time."
For more information, visit filmfresno.com. Property owners can submit photos of their property for film scout consideration, and production and other professionals may register their services.