California Film Commission Explains How HBO Swapped Spain for San Francisco

Hemingway & Gellhorn Nicole Kidman Clive Owen - H 2012

Hemingway & Gellhorn Nicole Kidman Clive Owen - H 2012

At a West Hollywood panel, the locations-centric discussion cited the slim budget of "Hemmingway & Gellhorn," despite the Spanish Civil War setting, and urged filmmakers to push Sacramento to extend the incentive program.

When literary lion Ernest Hemmingway and his journalist lover Martha Gellhorn, played by Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, huddle in a hospital during the chaos of the Spanish Civil War in a HBO movie out next month, they will actually be in a former bus station in Oakland, California.

Thanks to digital technology, California state tax incentives and the city of San Francisco's rebate program, the Bay Area is standing in not only for Spain, but for Cuba and other locations in Hemmingway & Gellhorn, an epic story made on a less than epic budget of under $20 million.

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“We won’t have done this without the ($3 million in) incentives from California plus the $600,000 rebate from San Francisco,” executive producer Trish Hofmann said Friday during a panel discussion at the second annual California Film Commission Locations Breakfast in West Hollywood. “That is what enabled us to do it (in California) for the HBO budget model.”

The director, Phillip Kaufman, lives in the Bay Area, as do most of the crew. Being able to make it there, all in one area, was also an incentive to attract Owen and Kidman to work for less than their usual fee, said Hofmann.

The Bay area also offered state of the art technology that is improving literally by the day, said Chris Morley, visual effects supervisor, for the San Francisco-based Tippett Studios, which worked on the HBO production.

“It’s just amazing how it’s changing bit by bit,” said Morley during the panel. “With this technology there is a renaissance happening on our streets.”

Still, it was the incentives that kept the 42-day production in California, Susannah Greason Robbins, executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission told The Hollywood Reporter. “If we don’t have that we’re going to lose productions to all the other states that have these incredible incentives,” said Robbins. “It’s so hard to compete with them as it is.”

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That was the main message at the breakfast, where Amy Lemisch, executive director of the California Film Commission, talked about more than $2.9 billion that has been spent on some 167 productions since the program kicked off in 2009.

Lemisch said the program has helped employ over 30,000 California crew members, more than 8,000 cast and as many as 100,000 background extras.

While $100 million a year may seem like a lot of money, it is still less than many other states and countries offer. California’s advantage is that it is home to many industry headquarters, has great infrastructure in place, a trained work force, diverse locations and generally good weather.

The next round of applications for California tax incentives are due at the California Film Commission offices between 9 a.m and 3 p.m. on June 1. The entire $100 million available will be committed that day using a lottery system, and winners will be notified the next day. Those who are not chosen may still make the waiting list, and, in the past, some of those have been funded when productions cancelled.

Lemisch told the 150 film commissioners, producers, service providers and others at the breakfast there is an effort in the state legislature to pass bills currently in the California state Senate and Assembly to extend the incentive program for five years beyond 2013 when the existing funding expires.

Robbins said they are also working to pass another $2 million funding bill for the San Francisco rebate program which was introduced by Supervisor Mark Farrell on Tuesday. It is to be voted on by the Board of Supervisors in the next 30 days. It would allocate $1 million per year for each of the two years, with a maximum rebate of $600,000 for an eligible movie or TV show.

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The San Francisco plan, which was enacted in 2006, requires a production with a budget under $3 million to shoot 55 percent in that area, and one with a budget over $3 million to shoot 65 percent there to qualify. Robbins said they have had eight productions qualify to date, including four in the past year. Besides Hemmingway & Gellhorn, that includes Knife Fight with Rob Lowe and Cherry with James Franco, plus a Disney stop motion project that is still in process.

What has San Francisco buzzing, however, is that Woody Allen begins shooting his as yet untitled next movie there in August, his first to shoot in the U.S. in years. “San Francisco is going to open their arms to Woody,” said Robbins. “There’s no better director to have do a post card to the city than Woody.”

San Francisco is the only municipality in California to offer its own incentive rebate program, although it exists in communities in a number of other states, including Louisiana.

However, as was clear at the breakfast, there are lots of other parts of California that may not have cash rebates to offer, but are more than ready to welcome filmmakers and producers. Representatives of film commissions from Sacramento to Fresno to West Hollywood were there pitching locations.

To help make those choices even more accessible, FLICS (Film Locations In California) this weekend launches its revamped website ( to showcase the wide variety and availability of locations and services statewide.

“It has more information about features, locations and technology,” said Barbara Hillman, film commissioner for the Berkeley Film Office.