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San Diego Film Industry In For An Uphill Climb

Reported by Katie Schoolov

San Diego is reviving an effort to bring TV and film production to San Diego County. Supporters want to bring back the glory days of more than a decade ago. Film industry insiders say it may be worth it, but it won’t be easy. KPBS’ Steve Walsh has this report.

San Diego was once a regular home for film and TV production. Getting back to that place will be tough but worth it.

Photo by Steve Walsh

Stu Segall talks about his role in the San Diego TV industry.

San Diego is trying to win back the film and TV industry. The city is in the process of hiring a coordinator to act as a local liaison for crews. The city is also working with the county to replace the film commission, which lost funding in 2013.

Those who are trying to win back the entertainment business face a very different world from the time when the local industry hit its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

These days, Stu Segall specializes in using Hollywood movie magic to give Navy Seals and corpsman a taste of what it’s like to be in combat. They've been invading Segall’s San Diego studios for more than 10 years. As we tour the backlot, he picks up a piece of cork used as shrapnel. We stand next to the wreckage of a helicopter where they typically stage a wounded female pilot who is fighting for her life.

“When they are here and there is gun fire going off, it’s real. They are in combat. They can intellectualize the fact they are in training, but intellectually and emotionally they are in combat,” Segall said.

Segall used to be San Diego’s most prolific TV producer. Beginning in the early 1990s, his production company was known for action dramas like "Silk Stalkings" and "Veronica Mars."

“We had a fixed amount to do it,” he said. “That was my specialty, to be able to do things on budget. So we came down here and did it on a budget and created some very interesting television.”

His studio began to see the end after Sept. 11, 2001. Networks moved away from the action-packed, budget-friendly dramas that made his studio famous in the industry, toward even more budget-friendly reality TV.

The finances behind the movie business have also changed.

“It’s been about 15 years when we were on a pretty steady decline of production levels, specifically with feature films and TV series, and so all regions of the state, including San Diego were affected by that,” said Amy Lemisch, executive director of the California Film Commission.

Other states began offering big incentives to lure radio and TV production. In recent years, Louisiana and Georgia have outpaced California in the number of live action big-budget films being produced. California pushed back with its own, more modest, tax credit.

In 2009, a San Diego production won one of the state’s first rounds of tax credits. "Terriers", produced by 20th Century Fox and FX, was set in Ocean Beach.

The California Film Commission estimates the crew spent $16 million in San Diego County. Unfortunately, "Terriers" was canceled after one season.

Many of the local professionals are still around.

Francine Filsinger, a local actress and president of the San Diego Filmmakers, said crews find work on smaller independent productions, or hone their craft with things like the 48-hour film project. Many of them still live in the area, but they regularly pack their bags and head to productions outside California.

“I do get a lot of emails and phone calls,” Filsinger said. “I’ll ask them how they’re doing, and they’ll say 'Hey, I’m just struggling to pay my mortgage. I’m just trying to feed my family. And I really don’t want to go to Georgia, Louisiana or Vancouver to film. I want to stay here. I want to be able to go to my child’s little league game.'"

Despite the ups and downs this year, California decided to triple its tax credit to $330 million a year for the next five years. The new tax credits add an extra 5 percent for productions that film outside of Los Angeles. The new credit is one reason the San Diego mayor’s office and the Board of Supervisors are looking at coming up with a replacement for the film commission, which shut down after its budget was cut in 2013.

The first round to California film credits went out in July. None of the productions were from San Diego. The next round is in November when TV productions will pitch their shows.

Segall is happy to have moved on from the TV business. Though California may not be the exclusive hub of the film industry, he thinks the city is still in a prime location.

“It’s everything you’d want," Segall said. "It’s blue skies. It’s friendly. And it's two hours outside of L.A., two and a half hours."

Even though the competition is a lot tougher these days, Segall still thinks San Diego has enough going for it, that just one big studio deal, could start the money flowing again.

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Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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