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Showing posts with label FilmLA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FilmLA. Show all posts

June 25, 2018

Altadena filming frequency map

AltadenaFilming has posted a new map that charts a 10-year history of filming frequency in Altadena and the unincorporated neighborhoods in adjacent zip codes. The data for the map was derived from filming permits issued by LA County's filming permit service, FilmL.A.

The map illustrates two types of filming activity: filming at individual locations and filming on area streets and grids. Scaled location markers are used to show varying levels of filming activity.

For more information about the map see Altadena Filming Frequency Map in the "AF Resources" menu.

Click here to expand the map.

Coming this Fall: The Altadena Filming Frequency Map will be upgraded. Each location will include a clickable link that displays the history of permitted productions that occurred at each location.

For an account of how the data was acquired see

The source data for the map is available at

June 23, 2018

The Data Chase (part 3): "The scrape"

——Continued from The Data Chase (part 2)——

The good folks a Jassy, Vick and Carolan (JVC ) could no long support us.  In our last communication, JVC  speculated that a backup of the database for the Online Permit System (OPS) could be a public record.  There was little doubt the back up existed and it would hold the data in an electronic form we could use.

We drafted another CPRA request, but were reluctant to proceed without a review from an expert.  Once again we were shopping for pro bono help.

We revisited the First Amendment Coalition (FAC) website for references to other firms with CPRA expertise. We sent an inquiry to every firm they listed in the LA area. Our only reply was a polite reminder from an attorney who had already turned us down. We had hit a dead end.

Then our luck changed.

I was having beers at Der Wolfskopf in Pasadena with an old friend who had given up engineering for law and community activism. I was rattling on about the state of our data collection project. He listened carefully and made a referral. He had seen an attorney make a dazzling, open-records appeal to the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Her name was Kelly Aviles.

We sent Ms. Aviles an inquiry. Her response was immediate; she was willing to hear more. We arranged a call. She was inspiring. Not only did she have confidence in the legitimacy of our request, she was quick to grasp the essentials, convincing in reply, and firm in her analysis. She agreed to review our letter.

On February 15, we sent our third,  CPRA request to FilmL.A.  This one was strongly worded.  We were asking for the "electronic data in the format in which it is held, in this case, the raw data held in the Online Permit System database."

We received the following reply dated February 28th:
We have received and reviewed your latest CPRA request with legal counsel and reiterate that, other than where contractually obligated to treat final permits as public records, Film L.A., Inc. is a private organization and not subject to the California Public Records Act. Our technology systems (Online Permit System) is proprietary and recognized as such in our municipal contract. Data within the system to fulfill our obligation to generate the final permit (all of which would occur during a "draft" stage or stages) may or may not become part of the final released or rejected permit. This data is not, at any rate, the final permit which would be recognized as the public record in our possession and for which we are required to respond to CPRA requests. Our municipal clients have only limited access to OPS through a communications link and not the database or its data. In addition OPS includes information that is internal to the organization and not our municipal clients. The public records we hold (final permits) are available in electronic format and access to those records has been provided to you.b

Excerpt from letter signed by Paul Audley, President of FilmL.A.

Audley's offer of access to the OPS system was as unappealing as ever, but this reply, more than the others, seemed to be laying a legal groundwork. The CPRA stipulates that records with proprietary information are not a public record. It also says that records created during a contract development period is not a public record until the contract is awarded.  Audley seemed to be suggesting that a draft permit was not a public record because it was a contract in development. In other words, if the database held proprietary information or if permits were like contracts, then the OPS database might not be a public record and FilmL.A. might have a basis for a denial.

Were his assertions true?  Were they grounds for denial?

The argument about draft permits as contracts seemed easily overcome. We need only to request a backup version dated a few months back so that any draft permits would not longer be "in development."

Audley's claim that FilmL.A. was not subject to the CPRA because it was private and  because the database held proprietary data might be a dubious.   In an early email, a FAC attorney had advised us that if "...FilmLA was created by the city and county to perform the government function of approving filming permits...then FilmLA should be subject to the CPRA and would have to comply with a records request..." In fact FilmL.A. was created by LA City and LA County for the purpose of replacing services previously provided by City and County Departments. In fact nearly all their operating funds are derived from film permit fees, film field services and school film licenses — all revenues previously charged and collected by local government.

We consulted with Aviles. She was dismissive of Audley's claims and confident that, in the end, our request would succeed. But, she drew the same conclusion that JVC had drawn: FilmL.A. would not provide the records without a writ from the Court. There was no point in continuing to send our informal CPRA letters. To proceed, we would need to raise funds for legal fees and court costs.

We requested feedback from a group interested friends and colleagues who had been following our progress. Did they think we should initiate a GoFundMe initiative to raise the needed funds? The response was very positive. So positive in fact, we had secured enough pledges to pay for the first legal step before we even opened a GoFundMe account.

That was a tipping point.

Before committing to an expensive legal process, we owed to ourselves to take a closer look at the approach Audley had repeatedly offered. Perhaps we could we get the data from the OPS system.  Perhaps it was realistic to capture, or scrape, all the documents from the OPS system and extract the data from them.

I contacted a few old software development colleagues for some pointers. The download could be automated. The software we needed was free and in widespread use by web developers. The download process could be run on no-cost services available from Amazon and Google. The decoding would require some programming. The programming tools were free.

In February I did some investigation and ran some preliminary tests.  FilmL.A. permits have a regular structure; there was a decent chance decoding would work. I timed the download process; the OPS system was slow and the system was restarted every night.  We could down load from four to a dozen documents a minute.  There were about 180,000 documents on the site. The scrape was possible, but would would take a month. Programming the decoder would take a couple weeks. Fixing bugs and correcting for anomalies would take a few more weeks. The project to scrape the data from the OPS system seemed feasible.

I discussed the project with Steve. He agreed that we should try the scrape before starting the legal process.

I began the Scrape Project during the last week of February.   My programming estimate was off by half, but we had a credible data set in early May. After all the hubbub, we  had what we had requested: the data we needed to estimate the untaxed income from location-filming rentals in the Los Angeles region.

Here's a few details about the data we collected in Scrape Project:
  • Jurisdictions covered: City of LA, LA County, plus 15 municipalities in the regionthat have contracted for FilmL.A.'s services
  • Jurisdictions not covered: Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, plus numerous other municipalities in the region
  • Years covered in the data: Q2 2008 through Q1 2018
  • Total number of permits downloaded and decoded: 180,435
  • Total number of times locations were approved for filming: 335,713
  • Total number of permitted on-location, production days including prep, filming and strike: 913,2951
  • Each data record includes the following values:
    • Permit number
    • Production company
    • Production title
    • Location manager
    • Jurisdiction
    • Prep dates
    • Film dates
    • Strike dates
    • Total production days (sum prep, film and strike days)
    • Year
    • Permit type (commercial, feature, still, etc.)
    • Location address
    • Zip code
    • Location type (e.g. private property, park, parking lot, etc.)
In the coming weeks, we plan to make the data set publicly available. Similarly, we will make the permit decoder source code available.

From the start, our effort to obtain and analyze filming permit data was motivated by a desire to understand the amount of revenue that passed through an exception in the IRS and FTB tax codes. It was our thought that, if the amount was sufficiently large, a local tax might generate funds that would provide significant benefit to underfunded government programs that assist the disadvantaged.

An initial estimate, based on filming in Altadena, appeared to suggest that the untaxed revenues in the LA Region might be as much as $200 million per year. It was thought that if the estimate was accurate, a tax rate comparable to the Transit Occupancy Tax might generate as much as $20 million dollars for underfunded local programs.

We used the scraped data to develop a more credible estimate. Based on that data, it appears the estimate of $200 million per year was much too high. A more reasonable estimate for tax-free, film-rental income in the LA region appear to be between $50-60 million per year. Assuming a transit-occupancy tax rate, the estimated tax proceeds would be $5-6 million per year. Well short of the estimated $20 million per year that originally motivated this study.2

In retrospect, we should have started the Scrape Project months before we did. We did not need to occupy the energies of those public spirited attorneys nor the people of FilmL.A, although we would have hoped that a public agency would be helpful. However, we now have the data and it speaks for itself.

1 The number was not scrubbed for errors in the original permit.  For example, in a dozen or so cases, the original permit may show a start date in 2015 and end date in 2016 adding 300 days to the total.  Consequently, the number of production days may be inflated by a few thousand or less than 0.10%.
2 A informal report that explains the basis of this estimate is available on request.

June 20, 2018

The Data Chase (part 2): "Access to public records"

——Continued from "The Data Chase (part 1)——

When my friend Bill suggested we use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain the filming permit data, I was annoyed. We had no funds for a lawyer and life is too short to become one. For no other reason to prove the FOIA was simply too much trouble, I googled around for some quick answers that would put the matter to rest.

It didn't work out that way. A two-minute read of Wikipedia turned up this inspiring excerpt from a 1986 California Supreme Court :

I got a pang of civic duty that I would later regret. If we could get the data, if we identified a source of revenue that helped the disadvantage, maybe we could do some good.

I called a friend who had recently retired from the Department of Justice.

"The first thing you need to know," she said, "the FOIA doesn't apply to California. It's just for federal agencies. You want the California Public Records Act. The second thing you need to know... go to the the LA Law Library. "The librarians are very helpful."

So they were. I was soon pouring over Terry Franke's invaluable reference Public Records and Private Information in California. f you should find yourself in the unfortunate position of needing access to public records in California, get this book!

The right of Californians to access public records goes back 150 years. The first statute ensuring access to public records was passed in 1872. An update was passed in 1953, but that bill was vetoed by Earl Warren. It took another 15 years before 1968, Ronald Reagan signed the current statute into law.

The California Public Records Act (CPRA) begins with this:
"In enacting this chapter, the Legislature...declares that access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state."
(CPRA section 6250)
In addition to guaranteeing every Californian the right to access state, county and city public records, the CPRA also provides provisions that compel the government to help satisfy a request.

Here's a paraphrase what the law provides:
When a member of the public requests a public record, the public agency...shall do all of the following:
(1) Assist the public identify records and information that are responsive to the request
(2) Describe the information technology and physical location in which the records exist
(3) Provide suggestions for overcoming any practical basis for denying access"
The CPRA does stipulate that a public agency may deny access to requested records are proprietary or impact privacy. However, if a CPRA request is denied, a citizen may appeal the denial to the Court for a writ of mandamus that forces the agency to provide the records. If the appeal succeeds, the agency is responsible for all legal costs.

There's teeth in the CPRA.

Were FilmL.A.'s permits public records? We did not know for certain.

I returned to Google for additional help. I found two California non-profits whose missions were to help citizens obtain public records: the First Amendment Coalition (FAC) and CalAware. I started with FAC. They offer an 'inquiry hotline. I sent an inquiry to FAC asking if FilmL.A. and their data were subject to the CPRA. To my amazement, the answer came quickly.
From what I understand, FilmLA was created by the city and county to perform the government function of approving filming permits. If that is the case then FilmLA should be subject to the CPRA and would have to comply with a records request, including any requirements described below to, for example, provide records to you in the format in which they exist. Also, the CPRA requires the agency to assist you in making a focused and effective request that reasonably describes identifiable records.

from an associate at FAC's general counsel, Brian Cave LLP
I forwarded the FAC email to Steve. "Great news," he replied. "We need legal advice."

I returned to the FAC site. They offer a slate of attorneys who specialize in first amendment and public access issues. I emailed three firms in the LA area. We received a promising reply from the LA firm of Jassy, Vick and Carolan (JVC). We sent along some documentation and arranged a call.
They were reassuring. They speculated we had a strong case. It seemed likely we would be successful.

With some very helpful guidance from JVC, we drafted a CPRA letters to FilmLA and LA City with supporting citations from the statute and a reminder that, under the CPRA, they are required to help us obtain the records. The letter was carefully worded. We wanted to ensure that FilmL.A. would not misunderstand this request. On July 21st, we sent the letters and crossed our fingers.

Four days later, we received the following response from Paul Audley, President of FilmL.A.
"We do not have a report in the format you described in your CPRA request. However, permit information is available electronically through our Online Permit System ."
Excerpt from letter signed by Paul Audley, President of FilmL.A.
While Audley's response removed any doubt that the FilmL.A. permits were public records, his reply was disappointing. The assertion that they they did not have a report in the format we requested seemed disingenuous. We had already received data from them in the very form we had requested. Perhaps Mr. Audley wasn't aware of the capabilities of his organization. But, the recommendation that we get the data from their Online Permit System (OPS) was less than helpful.

For our purpose, the OPS had two significant drawbacks. The FilmL.A. OPS only allows a user to download one permit file at a time. OPS held over 130,000 permits. There was a bigger problem. OPS stores permit data as pdf documents 1. A pdf document is like a sheet of paper, the information cannot be loaded in to statistic program. To do the analysis, we would have to be copy out the data from each separate permit into a form, like a spreadsheet, that could be loaded into an analysis application. Audley's offer to get the data from OPS seemed like no offer at all.

We sought advice from JVC and drafted another CPRA letter with a reminder that had already sent us the data in the form we requested. To ensure that Audley knew our claim wasn't a fabrication, we cited the February letter we had received from David Howard, Assistant Chief Executive Officer for LA County. "At our request, FiImLA has undertaken a review of their database and has provided responsive documentation in an electronic format..." We included a link to the spreadsheets in the hope that we could eliminate any doubt that FilmL.A. had the data we requested.

We send our letter on September 5, 2017. On September 11, we received the following reply.
"The records you refer to from January 2017 were "ad hoc" reports....They were not standard reports or records that are produced by Film L.A. for our client jurisdictions. Many of the data fields listed in the request from January could not be retrieved after many hours of work by our IT staff. Under the California Public Records Act, we a re not required to create reports that are not generated by us...We do not have the customized reports you requested."
Excerpt from letter signed by Paul Audley, President of FilmL.A.
We puzzled over Audley's response. We knew that the data existed because the OPS generated the pdf documents from the underlying electronic data. Was the denial based on a willful ignorance? Were FilmL.A.'s technical capabilities really that limited? Without doubt the data existed in some electronic form that did not require customization. If nothing else, the database backup files would have the data we were requesting. Surely, FilmL.A. backed up the OPS database — no competent IT organization would fail to make backups of the organization's data.

We once again sought JVC's advice. They were frank. The writing was on the wall. While it appeared that a back-up file might be subject to a CPRA request, it had become clear to JVC that FilmL.A. was not willing to help. In order to succeed, we would have to go to court. But JVC felt our case might not be clear cut. It could be difficult to convince a court that the OPS data did not meet the intent of the CPRA. Given those circumstances, JVC felt they were no longer able to provide us with guidance. We thanked JVC profusely for all that they had done. That had been very generous. We had been more-than-a-little lucky to capture their attention.

We were back where we started.

I was mulling over our options when I received an email from my friend Mary who had been supportive of our project. Mary is an executive at foundation that supports low-cost housing projects. Mary had been meeting Doug Baron, the Manager of the Office of Economic Development and Homelessness in LA County's CEO office. The County's Film Liaison had just been moved into Mr. Baron's Division.

"I think you should meet Doug," she said. "I told him I had a friend working on a project based on filming permit data. He was aware of you. 'You mean that crackpot from JPL?' I told him you were no crackpot, but a serious person that he should meet."

With Mary's help, Steve and I met Mr. Baron on November 1st. Gary Smith, the new Film Liaison for LA County attended the meeting. Both men were very hospitable We discussed our project, the potential we saw and our efforts to date. They seemed genuinely interested. We explained why we believed FilmL.A. held the data in the form we requested. We asked for their help. As we left they agreed to make inquiries on our behalf.

We heard nothing for a couple weeks. Then, just before Thanksgiving, we received a terse note from Gary Smith. "After double checking, we are not able to provide you with the data you seek in the format you've requested." After the warm reception at that November 1st meeting, the note struck us as dismissive. We had hoped to hear more than a summary denial. It wasn't to be.

Just before the Christmas break, I met Steve for lunch to discuss next steps. It had been almost a year since we began the project and we appeared to be out of options.

"Time to give up the ghost or try to find another attorney?" I asked.

"We should try," he said.

It was a good thing, because our luck was about to change.

—— To be continued ——

1Portable Document Format (pdf) is an internal standard for representing documents in an electronic format.

June 12, 2018

The Data Chase (part 1): "Learning the ropes"

The following three-part story recounts a 14-month effort to obtain public records from FilmL.A. Some names have been changed to ensure privacy.

It was a couple days after Christmas. 2017 was days away. I was having lunch with my friend Steve. Steve is a community-spirited fellow with a heart of gold and the kind of integrity you'd wish our public officials exhibited. The sort of person you can admire, but not successfully emulate.

"I'm writing to let you know that FilmL.A. is unable to fill
your request for...ZIP codes 91001 and 91104.
Our permit system is not set up to generate filming
reports with complex geographic boundaries..."
We were discussing the tax loophole for film-location rentals. The loophole exempts film hosts from paying tax on film-rental income while allowing film companies to deduct these rental fees from their bottom line.

In a previous posting, I had estimated that, in LA County, perhaps as much as $200 million a year was paid out as untaxed rental income. It was an 'iffy' estimate. It relied on very incomplete data and a lot of assumptions. I had made numerous requests for additional data, but FilmL.A. turned them all down. I had long since given up.

"Just think," I told Steve, "a 10% tax on $200 million might raise $20 million a year for an underfunded government program -- like something for the homeless."

"What if that estimate was right?" He asked. "What then?"

"Maybe somebody tries to get a tax measure on the ballot," I hypothesized.

"I think we should do it," he replied.

"And what if that estimate is wrong? There are a lot of assumptions."

"Let's find out. Let's get the actual data," he said.

That's how the saga of our endeavor to acquire FilmL.A. filming-permit data began.

The relevant loophole language appears in IRS Publication 527. The text gets right to the point:
"If you use a dwelling unit as a home and you rent it less than 15 days during the year, its primary function isn’t considered to be rental and it shouldn’t be reported on Schedule E (Form 1040). You aren’t required to report the rental income and rental expenses from this activity."
Simple enough. Rent your home for less that 15 days and you do not need to report or pay tax on that rental income.1 So, in order to calculate a credible estimate of of the rental-income that zooms through the loophole in Los Angeles every year, we only needed the total number of annual days that film companies rented from each home owner. As luck would have it, the FilmL.A. permits include all the information we needed to arrive at that figure.

Each FilmL.A. permit provides the location address as well as the dates approved for production2. The permit also includes a designation for a "location type." Applicants are asked to choose from 159 different location types: banks and bakeshops, parks and parking lots, tattoo shops and tennis clubs to name a few. Fortunately, one of the listed location types is "Private Residence." Put it together and there is precisely the information required to match the IRS tax-free film-rental requirement. Once we had the number of days, we could produce an credible estimate for the size of the tax loophole by simply multiplying by typical location-rental fees.

Shortly after 2016 holiday season, Steve wrote a letter requesting the data. The letter was sent to Anthony Nyivih, the LA County Official listed as the manager of the FilmL.A. contract. Steve requested three years of data that included the location address, location type and a few other data points so we could disambiguate any duplicate street names. He asked for it in an electronic format. And, believing that he could appeal to Mr. Nyivih's better nature by telling him about our worthy cause, Steve wrote:
"We believe that the tax rules may provide an opportunity to realize a source of badly needed funds to address the homeless problem. The filming permit data is necessary to confirm the benefits of this opportunity."
The letter was sent on January 12th. A week later Mr. Nyivih, called. He wanted to help, but did not fully understand our request. He suggested we discuss our request with FilmL.A. — that way, they could accurately respond. He offered to set up a meeting. I could hardly believe my ears; FilmL.A. was going to help.

That meeting never happened.

On February 2nd, Steve received an email from the County with three pdf attachments. Each file was a printout of a spreadsheet that held a year's worth of permit data.

The email was a a serious disappointment. Pdf files can not be loaded into a statistics program. We had no easy way to analyze the data. There was a bigger problem. The data was incomplete. They had only included figures for the unincorporated areas of LA County -- about 10% of the what we needed. Worse, the data did not include all the production dates or location type. On top of that, nearly all the zip codes had been removed for the location addresses. We had data, but we could not use it to generate an estimate the size of the loophole. It was as if someone in the County wanted to stymie our attempt to calculate an estimate.

Steve, who is not easily deterred, reached out to Mr. Nyivih and requested the spreadsheets and the additional data. On February 6th, Steve received the requested spreadsheets and the following memo from David Howard, Assistant Chief Executive Officer for LA County.

Mr. Howard wrote:
"As you are aware, FiImLA is the County’s contractor coordinating the issuance of film permits. At our request, FiImLA has undertaken a review of their database and has provided responsive documentation in an electronic format...Note that FiImLA does not have an electronic record of the location manager, or prep dates and strike dates. Additionally, the term “location type” is unclear..."
In time we learned that, for the past ten-years, every filming permit issued by FilmL.A. was assigned a location type and all but a small fraction of a percent included a zip code. However, we did not need all that data to know someone at the County or FilmL.A were shading the truth. A cursory glance at any FilmL.A permit by was proof enough that they had the data we had asked for. We were being stonewalled.

For the next few weeks Steve made repeated attempts to reach Mr. Howard and renew our request. He never received a reply.

In retrospect, we had made several mistakes. The request for data in an electronic form was not specific enough. We should have asked for the data in a form that could be loaded into a spreadsheet application. We did not understand that our request for LA County data would only produce data for unincorporated areas of the County. We needed data for the entire County. We did not think to specifically request that the location addresses include a zip code. Finally, we did not say that our request was based on information that appeared on approved filming permits. If anyone had looked, the meaning of "location type" would have been abundantly clear.  Live and learn.

A month passed. I was having lunch at our usual Deli with my retired friends Bill and Gary. They understood how government bureaucracies and special interests operated. They had made their living offering guidance to left-leaning politicians.

Our conversation drifted over every gloomy topic coming out of Washington. In spirit of gloomy topics, I delivered a play-by-play of how the County had rebuffed our efforts to get the data needed to estimate the tax loophole.

Bill shook his head and gestured with disbelief. "Didn't you try a the Freedom of Information Act Request?"

I shrugged. It never occurred to me.

"Well you should," he said.

Neither Steve nor I had known it, but we had already made our first public records act request. We knew nothing of Freedom of Information Act. We were about to learn.

—— To be continued ——

1 Important note to filming hosts: be sure your 1099 lists your income in the "rents" box.
2 Filming permits include the type of production days: prep days, filming days and strike days. Each type of production days represents a potential IRS rental day.

June 11, 2017

Championing tax credits

There is so much data. The internet is awash with it. If only it weren't so confusing. Numbers can support any point of view. After all, data are just measurements; their meaning comes from context. I remember an aphorism an cynical ex-colleague frequently repeated:

"Politicians use statistics like drunkards use lampposts: not for illumination, but for support.*

The adage may be ill tempered, but in this era of spun and stilted claims, confidence in the numbers depends on knowing what underlying cause the authors are looking to support.

For example, take a look at three recently published research reports from FilmLA.
  • On January 17th, Filmla reported a "surge in Feature film production...making 2016 the strongest year for Feature production in L.A. since California introduced its film incentive program." According to FilmLA's president, Paul Audley, "the incentive is working as intended in bringing exciting new projects to the area.”
  • On April 12th, FilmLA reported there had been a 36% drop in feature film production from the same period last year. The headline was alarming, but Audley acknowledged the data might be an outlier. (In fact a simple trend analysis would substantiate his observation. See the charts at the bottom of this posting.)

    Despite Audley's caveat,the report caused a stir. The story recieved wide coverage in the papers and on radio. The County Supervisors took action — they passed a motion to "reverse the tide of runaway filming by... [taking] a proactive role in retaining and growing [the] industry..."

    However the news is not all grim. The report added that "incentivized projects" brought numerous shoot Days to LA in the several production categories.
  • On May 23, FilmLA reported that, in 2016, California had dropped to a lowly 4th place in the principal photography of feature films behind Georgia, the UK and Canada. Not co-incidentally, Georgia spent almost twice as much (+$300M) on its incentive program as California spent. The UK and Canada each outspent California by $100M.
FilmLA shouldn't be faulted for producing reports that substantiate the effectiveness of tax credits. They are acting in their self-interest. The County set up FilmLA as a 'no cost' service; it is almost entirely dependent on its revenues from the fees it collects from on-location filming permits. And since tax credits to film production companies have made California a more attractive location and boosted the number of filming permits issued, to report otherwise would mean doing themselves a disservice.

What on earth could be wrong with hyping the benefits tax credits? Aren't they bringing jobs? Maybe it is not so simple. Consider the following:
  • According to reports in the LATimes and the Daily News, there is a shortage of sound stages. There is no place to shoot. Existing stages are rented to capacity. Bringing in new productions exacerbates the problem. Building new sound-stages is challenging: construction is hampered by the cost of real estate and a "complex approval process."
  • In the May 23rd report, FilmLA identified 12 feature films that did principal photography in California for a total budget value of the $991M. 5 of those 12 features were animated. Those 5 animated accounted for 78% of the total budget. This lopsided distribution would suggest that incentives to animated films should get priority to live action films. However, the resulting increase would not show up in the on-location, shoot-day data. An alternative measure is needed.
  • According to the May 23rd report, California appears to be getting way more more bang for its incentive buck than Georgia, the UK or Canada. Total TV and film spending in California topped $30B while the combined totals for film spending in Georgia, the UK and Canada totaled just $7.5 billion. The data suggests that increasing California's tax incentives might not do much to increase film spending in the state. Nonetheless, there is market pressure to increase the tax credit allocation. According to Joseph Henchman, VP of the Legal and State Projects for the Tax Foundation, film companies are lobbying states for the best tax breaks. (He made the claim on KPCC's Air Talk (click here to listen to the radio interview [go to 10:00].) This competitive bidding in incentives has lead to an escalation in the film industry's demands for support. The tactic resembles the threats NFL owners have used to get local governments to fund new stadiums.
If the goal of tax credits is to bring productions to California, then there must be sufficient film production infrastructure. If the goal is to convince film companies to spend their production dollars in California, the incentives should fund those films that spend the most. If the goal is to obtain a high rate of return on California's tax-credit investment, the state should avoid the tax incentive bidding contest.

If those are the goals for the tax credit program, it doesn't make much sense to measure success in shoot days. On the other hand, if the goal is use tax credits to fund FilmLA, then measuring success in shoot days makes perfect sense.

AF alternative analysis  
Seven year trend (2010-2017) for 1st Quarter shoot-day data
data accumulated from FilmLA  reports

The 7-year trend for Q1 on-location shoot days for features and TV is very positive. The projection for feature shoot days in Q1 2018 is just 10% off the 2016's record results. TV dramas, TV Comedies and Web TV all show strong upward trends. The TV pilots are flat. If anything we should be worried about about Reality TV.

During the 7-year survey period, the vast majority of on-location shoot days were TV and a category FilmLA calls "other."  (your guess is as good as ours.)  Within the TV category, Dramas and Reality TV were responsible for the most shoot days.

While the total number of on-location shoot days has increased in all categories, features are contributing much smaller percentage to the total suggesting a smaller rate of growth than other production categories.

* Wikipedia attributes the quote to Hans Kuhn. Kuhn once did a stint at Cal Tech.

April 21, 2017

Are you covered?

Not long ago, I ran across a story about a filmmaker who got caught filming without a permit. Here's what happened.
"He [a fire marshal] essentially said to me, he didn’t care [if I had a permit] so long as I had done something to make the effort, but in good conscience he couldn’t just turn a blind eye. Meanwhile the permit office called around two and rejected my permit, but said I could probably get it for Thursday if I could hold off until then. I told them maybe and that I’d get back to her. We wrapped the location at 4 pm. The next day our production wrapped all together."
As a card-carrying member of the if-something-can-go-wrong-it-will club, I couldn't help but wonder: what if there had been an accident? What if this film shoot didn't have insurance? Who pays?

FilmLA's Contract
Details of the FilmLA contract are described in four previous posts:
  • Part 1: Mitigating the impact of filming
  • Part 2: Reporting obligations
  • Part 3: Permit processing
  • Part 4: Permit terms and conditions
To see the entire 2009 FilmLA contract, click here.
To see the 2014 renewal amendment, click here.
The same questions must have occurred to the LA County attorney who drafted the FilmLA contract. Indemnification requirements occupy a full 7 pages,  nearly 14%,  of the entire document. That's the same page count needed to describe FilmLA's entire Statement of Work.

Here's a few indemnification highlights (if you could call indemnification a highlight) from the FilmLA contract:
  • FilmLA must "indemnify, defend and hold harmless" the County, elected officials, employees and agents from all liability."
  • Insurance is mandatory. If FilmLA fails to have insurance, FilmLA breeches its contract.
  • FilmLA's indemnification of the LA County is not limited by the dollar amount of its insurance.
  • FilmLA cannot change or cancel their insurance until after the County has 30 days notice.
  • FilmLA cannot obligate the County to pay deductibles.
  • FilmLA has to let the County know if there is an injury or law suite that could result in a claim against the county.
  • FilmLA waives the right to seek recovery against the County.
It would appear that the County's deep pockets are protected from any law suit stemming from a film shoot. If something were to go wrong, FilmLA would be holding the bag. Apparently the insurance needed to meet the County's requirements is pricey. FilmLA reported paying $86,000 for insurance in 2013 and $120,000 in 2014.

On a related note, the California Film Commission has circulated a "Model Filming Ordinance" to local governments that recommends requiring film companies indemnify elected officials and government employees.  Curiously, LA County doesn't not have an ordinance of that sort. Indemnification provisions only appear in the FilmLA contract.

While it's good to know the County, and my tax dollars, are protected, I can't help wondering... am I covered?

What if an afternoon gust topples a 150-pound Arri HMI and it smashes my windshield? Who's paying for that?

According to item #5 in the Terms and Conditions 1 attached to every filming permit, the film company must have general liability and workers' compensation insurance. (The amounts of minimum coverage are left up to FilmLA.)  Consequently, FilmLA will not issue a filming permit unless they receive proof of insurance certificate that meets minimum requirements.

FilmLA requires the following minmum coverage to obtain a filming permit in LA County:
  • $1,000,000 in General Liability coverage
  • $1,000,000 in auto insurance
  • Workers' Compensation Insurance
These insurance policies can have a hefty price tag. Nancy Bond of Nancy Bond Insurance Services, estimates a short term liability policy might run $2,500 - $5, 000 depending on the risks associated with the production plan. A annual policy may run in the tens of thousands of dollars depending on the number of productions covered.

So...if a film company has a permit, they will have insurance.  Is there anything left to worry about?  We asked Nancy Bond and she offered the following advice:
Click here to see an example certificate of insurance
  • If you rent your property to a film company and there's an accident you could be held liable. For protection, make certain you obtain a certificate of insurance from the film company and that your name appears on the certificate as "additionally insured."

    Incidentally, liability may extend to neighbors who just rent a driveway for a porta potty or a yard for craft services. These neighbors should also obtain a certificate of insurance and ask to be named as "additionally insured."

  • Confirm that the certificate includes workers' compensation insurance. You may be liable if the company does not include workers' comp in the policy.

  • Be sure to examine the insured amounts on certificate of insurance. You may want to increase a few items that exceed the minimum requirements set by FilmLA.

    For example, check the "Damage to rented premises box."2 $300,000 is typical. If your property is worth more than the insured amount, consider requesting a higher coverage. Also check the "General Aggregate" box. You may be responsible for liabilities in excess of the policy. If you are concerned the amount of coverage, request "Excess Liability/Umbrella coverage. Amounts of $5,000,000 are not unusual.

    Note: The aggregate total is shared by all the 'insured' and the 'additionally insured.' When thinking about the amount of coverage remember that you are sharing the coverage with the production company, the County, FilmLA and any neighbors who are also covered by the same policy.

  • If you frequently host filming, your insurance carrier may consider you are running a business and require you to purchase a business endorsement.

  • Consider consulting with your insurance broker for the coverage you need when hosting renting your property to a film company.

Getting back to the story at the beginning of this post about the unpermitted film shoot... remember they were working without a permit and possibly without insurance. Is that against the law?

Aside from getting the filming stopped, apparently not.  At least in LA County.

While LA County has indemnification ordinances for taxi companies, cable TV vendors, news rack vendors, marijuana dispensaries, ambulance companies and sidewalk vendors, it does not have one for film companies.3 In fact, the County has many far more ordinances for oak tree removal than it does for film production. In other words, the County could fine you for removing an oak tree without a permit, but not for shooting a film without insurance.

That's not the case for filming in LA City. Don't get caught there filming without a permit. In 2011, the LA City Council passed an ordinance making filming without a permit illegal. If a filmmaker gets caught in LA City filming without permit they could be arrested, fined and their equipment confiscated.

Bottom line: If you host a film shoot, be sure the company has a filming permit and sufficient insurance. Otherwise, you could be running a liability risk

1 Here's a link to the Terms and Conditions appended to every permit.   Click here and search for "Exhibit U."
2 Certificates of insurance companies are typically issued on a 'Certificate of Liability Insurance' Accord form. Consequently, category names should be the same.
3 The following LA County ordinances stipulate indemnification requirements: taxis (7.80.230) Cable TV vendors (16.19.100), news rack vendors (16.27.090), Marijuana dispensaries (7.55.330), Ambulances (3.45.100), sidewalk dinning vendors(16.27.090), oak tree removal permit (22.56 Part 16).

October 26, 2016

Q3 Report: Location filming in LA is still on the upswing

Good news for those Altadeneans concerned about runaway film production: on-location filming in the LA remains on a solidly upward trend. More production is staying local.

According to FilmLA, Q3 location filming is up 3% from the same period last year. The Q3 results are similar to Q2 results. There were nearly 10,000 shoot days in greater Los Angeles. (The actual number will be higher since FilmLA does not provide filming permits for all parts of LA County.)
FilmLA report on total shoot days in Q3 2016

Here's a comparison of the data with the same quarter last year:
  • There were 57 fewer feature shoot days (i.e. movies)
  • There were 33 fewer commercial shoot days
  • 115 more TV shoot days
  • 118 more 'other' shoot days (e.g. web productions)
That's a total bump of 133 total shoot days since last year.

Note: It appears that there's a problem with FilmLA's arithmatic. Their total 9,795 is 142 days higher than the sum of the reported individual totals for features, commercials, TV and 'other.'

If you're wondering why the good news,  look no farther than the California's Film and Television Tax Credit Program.  Back in 2009, the Legislature passed the "Film and Television Tax Credit Program 1.0" in order to reverse the trend of runaway production. The program started to take effect in 2010. In 2104 the Legislature passed "Film and Television Tax Credit Program 2.0" a new version with a bigger pot: $300M+ in tax credits per year for the film industry.

The new numbers are especially interesting when compared to Q3 2010.
FilmLA data (see page after p.23)
In case you're arithmetically challenged like me (or FilmLA), here's a handy table that should make the comparison between Q3 2010 to Q3 2016 easy.

Q3 2016Q3 2010Change
Features 1,089 1,001 +88
TV 4,423 2,595 +1,828
Commercials 1,245 854 +391
Other 2,896 1,953 +943
Total 9,653 6,403 +3,250 

That's an increase in shoot days of nearly 50% in 6 years. Clearly the tax credit program is working. Of course the boon in production could be affected by other influences like the on-going SAG/AFTRA strike against video game producers. Meanwhile the film production biz is thriving in our area.

Ironically, this success provides a challenge for the agencies like FilmLA and the California Film Commission who are obliged to declaim the success of the program while doing some convincing hand wringing or run the risk of losing the government subsidies. It must be a precarious balance.   Unless of course film industry corporations would wield some political influence that might help tilt the scales.... nah.

August 5, 2016

Altadena's new Filming Committee

Altadena now has an Altadena Filming Committee.

The committee was formed last spring when Town Council Chairwoman, Diane Marcussen invited Anne Chomyn (chair), Pat Sutherlan, Janet Lee and Kenny Meyer to participate. Anne Chomyn (CT 4601), Pat Sutherlan (4611) and Jennifer Lee (CT 4612) are members of the Town Council. The committee plans to recruit members of the community on an ad hoc basis to help out on specific items.

The committee held its first meeting on June 15 at the Altadena Community Center. The meeting was attended by representatives of Supervisor Antonovich's Office, Department of Public Works, The Sheriff's Department, The California Highway Patrol and FilmLA.

Altadena Filming Committee welcomes representatives from state, county, community, and  FilmLA.
From Center Top, clockwise around the table: Daniel Harlow, Sussy Nemer, Barbara Childers, Edel Vizcarra, Jennifer Lee, Greg Graham, Officer Rich Vega, Anne Chomyn, Sgt. Earnie Amaya, Officer Michael Ulloa, Sgt. Waterman, Officer Kristi Cardoza, Jennifer Morelos, Arturo PiƱa, Patricia Sutherlen
After a round of introductions, Anne Chomyn opened the discussion by describing the committee's initial goals as follows:
  1. Work with LACO agencies to help resolve filming-related problems
  2. Work with FilmLA and Altadena neighbors to help promote fairness in frequently used areas
The main topic of the meeting was FilmLA's filming permitting process. Jennifer Morales, FilmLA's Manager of Permit Operations provided a detailed description of FilmLA's overall organization and the part each division plays in the permitting process. FilmLA's Arturo Pina (our local representative) filled in valuable fine points.

The last portion of the meeting was devoted to questions about the enforcement of permit conditions. Sgt Waterman of the Altadena Sheriff and Officer Kristi Cardoza of the CHP provided an overview of the role of the on-site officer and how he or she is selected for a specific assignment.

Anne Chomyn closed the meeting with an announcement of the plans for future meetings. The committee will convene monthly to address any issues that arise. In addition, the committee will conduct quarterly consultative meetings and public meetings. The consultative meetings will be focused on topic and will include representatives of the various county services as well as community members. The public meetings will provide an information exchange forum for the discussion and resolution of filming topics of interest to the community.

The topic of the next meeting: traffic and parking. The committee plans to meet with representatives of LACO Public Works.

As a final note, Anne Chomyn said she would invite inputs for items of interest from any member of the entire Altadena community. You can reach Anne Chomyn or any member of the Altadena Filming Committee at committee's email address:

The meeting minutes are available online at the Altadena Town Council Website

August 4, 2016

Q2 Report: The Business is good in LA

Today's posting has been salvaged from the pile of things that once-seemed-interesting-and-might-still-be. So we hope you will find this tidbit of YESTERDAY'S NEWS TODAY useful if you're in need of a impressive dinner party topic.

According to a recent report from FilmLA, the film BIZ is really hopping in LA County. The credit for the boom in business goes to Governor Brown's generous $1.55B Film and Television Tax Credit Program 2.0.
The smattering of readers who follow along here might recall an earlier post where it was suggested that a more descriptive name for the Governor's Program might be "Film/Television Tax Credit and Accountant Full-Employment Program." Back to yesterday's news..)
from the FilmLA Report (7/12/2016):
"Feature Film Production on the Increase in Los Angeles"
Way back on July 12th, FilmLA reported that there were nearly 10,000 on-location shooting days between April Fool's Day and July 4th--otherwise know as Q2. That's up about 6% from Q2 2015. Not quite up to the Q1 2016 bonanza when production was up 10% from 2015, but still impressive. Overall for 2016, FilmLA reports there have been nearly 20,000 shoot days in Los Angeles County during 2016.

If you're like me, the temptation to extrapolate from these figures is irresistible.

Consider this: the FilmLA data only includes data for LA City, LA County and a handful of other municipalities in the county. Let's say if we included on-location shoots for places like South Pasadena, Pasadena, La Canada, Glendale, Burbank and Monrovia, and added a very modest 10% to the total. In that case, we could estimate about 44,000 on-location shoot days in LA County for 2016. And, if you knock off a couple weeks for the Christmas holidays, that's nearly 900 shooting days per week or roughly 180 on-location shoots happening in LA County on a typical day.

While that's a sizable number, your chances of encountering a film shoot while running errands remains small. According to the infallible Wikipedia, there's about 4,000 square miles of land in LA County. All things being equal (which they never are) that suggests one shoot per every 22 square miles. You probably have a better chance of seeing a Delorean.

Apparently, the biggest growth in on-location shoot days was in feature production and TV pilots. Although the LA Times reports that LA's overall share of TV pilots is shrinking, that is not really worrisome since the production pie is getting bigger and the number of jobs is increasing.

However, if you happen to be a reality TV fan, the news isn't so good. Reality TV on-location shoot days is down over 8%. (That probably means that we aren't going to see "The Real Neighbors of Altadena" produced any time soon.)

According to the FilmLA press release, the main reason for this overall growth is the Film and Television Tax Credit Program 2.0. They claim it's only the start. Paul Audley, President of FilmLA, touts that “We expect these production increases to continue until the state’s incentive reaches full utilization.” In other words there still plenty of credits left in the kitty.

So who's getting in on the State's largess? Easy enough to find out. The California Film Commission has published the list of 28 winners who successfully competed for $109 million jackpot in tax credits. If the proceeds were split evenly, that would be about $4 million a piece.

Interestingly, nearly two-thirds are "non-independent" productions — meaning the budgets are greater than $10M and more than 25% of the production company is owned by a publicly traded company, like Disney. The Biggies are are winning out over the Indies.

Speaking of Disney: "A Wrinkle in Time" (a Disney production listed as Tesseract) was a tax-credit winner. "Wrinkle" is supposed to generate 400 jobs and $44 million in wages. Not a bad return for a $4 million dollar tax gimme.

From California’s Film & TV Tax Credit Program 2.0 Gains First $100 Million-Plus Feature
California Film Commission Press Release (8/2/16)

July 26, 2016

CityWatch Story: San Pedro Residents suggest filming could be better

Earlier this week CityWatch* ran a story, an OpEd piece really, about a disruptive film production that raised a stir among residents in San Pedro. The piece asserts that shoot would have been less disruptive if FilmLA had done a better job of coordinating with other city departments to delay or downsize the shoot. If they had, the film shoot might not have "annoyed" the locals.

The article raises the prospect of improving the system, but disparages the possibility of obtaining help from city government because "The industry has too much clout." Rather, the writer calls for neighborhood councils to have some "quiet, polite chats" with the film industry in the hope of reaching a better accommodation.

Here's a link to the full story on CityWatch.

*CityWatch is a LA City/County newsletter and website that covers topics on the neighborhood level.

May 10, 2016

A better approach


You have a fancy new sports car. You take it out on the road. Drives like a dream. You step on it. The other cars appear to move in slow motion. The road becomes a slalom and you weave in and out gracefully. Then you hear it. The siren. The flashing blue lights in the review view. You over pull over, grab your wallet and roll down your window.

"May I see your license please," says the officer. You produce your license. He examines it.

"Is something wrong officer?"

"You were speeding, weaving in and out. Driving recklessly. That can cause an accident," he says.

"No worries," you reply with relief. "I have a high-performance car and it's perfectly safe."

"If you say so," says the officer. He hands back your license. "In the future do consider driving slower with a bit more courtesy to the other drivers."

"Thanks officer," you say. "I'll keep that in mind."

Life is good.

Or imagine this...

It's Fall. Property taxes are due. They want a big chunk of change. Didn't you pay taxes just last year? What you really need is a breather. Ten mellow days in Ensenada should do it. You skip the taxes and take the trip.

It's Spring. A letter arrives from the LA County Tax Collector. They want you to call. After a 20 minutes of the soothing tones of Pachelbel, a representative picks up.

"How may I help you today?"

"I'm calling about a letter," you say.

"I'm sorry for the inconvenience," says the representative. "We send a tax notice to every property owner in the County." You recite your Assessor Information Number. There's a lengthy silence. "Sorry for the wait. Our computers are slow, " he says. The moments pass. "OK," he says, "I see here that you did not pay the taxes for the last year."

"Yes. That's right. We decided to go on vacation instead of paying our taxes," you say.

"I understand," says the representative. "In the future, I hope you'll bear us in mind. The County's critical services like the Sheriff Department and the Fire Department depend on your taxes."

"Next year I'll keep that in mind," you say.

"We appreciate that," replies the representative.

Life is good.

Paul Audley, President FilmLA
Link to NBC4 video report (04:00 - 04:17)
Link to the NBC4 full story with map (zoom out)
Preposterous? That's what I thought until I saw a recent report of NBC4 that included an interview with Paul Audley, President of FilmLA.

The NBC4 report covered concerns that some residents of Encino are having about frequent filming and parking problems that frequent filming create. This despite language in the LA City zoning plan which states "property in all zones may be used for infrequent filming."

Here's a snipet from the NBC4 report:

NBC4 Reporter: "Exactly what does infrequent mean...none of us seem to know."

Mr. Audley: "Infrequent means different things in different parts of the city. We don't wait until it's a crisis. We try to intervene earlier and ask the homeowner who's doing the filming to take longer breaks between or to cease filming for a period of time to allow the neighborhood to rest."
I find this reassuring. So what if only Mr. Audley knows what "infrequent" means, clearly he does. And it's gratifying to know that crises have been avoided by simply asking the hosting homeowner if it's OK to cease filming. After all, that places the film permitting authority right where it belongs — in the home where the filming will occur. Someone should tell the folks in in Encino. They could probably use some reassurance.

Do you see the underlying brilliance to this approach? What if FilmLA's approach to enforcement of "infrequent filming" became the model for all County services. We could simply rely on ourselves and our fellow citizens to adhere and enforce our government's regulations. No longer will there be a need for all those expensive enforcement services. Do we really need people handing out speeding tickets and collecting taxes? And, who needs a filming permit service? Heck, we'll just take a break and cease filming when we need to.

Life would be good.

What if all county services were run like FilmLA?

January 12, 2016

Who's on the Board? (the board of FilmLA)

Who decides if a filming permit can be issued? FilmLA. So I was wondering... who sets the policies for FilmLA? 

After about 10 seconds of digging, I discovered that FilmLA has a Board of Directors. Altogether there are 29 Board Members: 4 are Board Officers, the remaining 25 are Members at Large. 

Who are they? 

FilmLA identifies each members as an "entertainment industry member," a "union/guild member" or a "community member." The break down looks like this: 

Board officers: 3 are union/guild members, 1 is from the entertainment industry 
Members at Large: 9 are entertainment industry members, 7 are union/guild members, 9 are community members. 

For the sake of argument, assume that those 9 community members are the mostly likely to be the advocates for neighbors and neighborhoods. In that case those 9 members at large would of special interest. 

I checked around on the net to find out a bit about each of the 9 'community' board member and here's what I found: 

  • Bill Allen: from the LA economic development corporation 
  • Dr. Allan Boodnick: Community Representative, Ladera Heights Civic Association (no additional info) 
  • Ben Everard: Grey Matters Productions (Variety lists him as COO film production company) 
  • Judy Frank: Asset Strategist, Gensler (Reestate and investment strategist, previously VP of realestate at Warner Brothers, client list includes Fox, Warner Bros., Toronto Film Studios, etc.) 
  • Kim Roberts: Community Representative, Baldwin Hills (no additional info) 
  • Angie McCabe: LBA Reality (no additional info) 
  • Paul Nawrocki: Independent Consultant. A Paul Nawrocki was mentioned in WGA posting as "assistant director of writers guild" 
  • Leron Gubler: Hollywood Chamber of Commerce 
  • Dan Swartz: Quadrangle Development Company (no additional info) 

In summary... 
With the exception of Dr. Broodnick, Kim Roberts, Leron Guber and Dan Swartz, all of the other "community members" appear have business interests that might conflict with advocacy of neighborhood interests. In numbers that's 4 out 29. 

By the way...none are from the San Gabriel Valley. 

I think it fair to say that the San Gabriel Valley neighborhoods under FilmLA jurisdiction may be under represented. 

Note: Until 2008 there was a member at large from Altadena on the FilmLA Board.