Homegrown moviemakers bring film boom to Valley

July 24, 2011 

It's getting harder to go anywhere in the Valley without running into a film crew.

Over at the KMPH studios last week, movie director Matt Sconce had taken over a control room. He was coaching Channel 26.1 anchor and part-time actor Kopi Sotiropulos on how to say "What a great day" with just the right emphasis for a scene in the film "The Park."

"What a GREAT day. WHAT a great DAY. What a GREEEAT Day," Sotiropulos said, repeating the dialogue until the local film director was certain he got the perfect end line to his low-budget movie.

A few days later, at Oakhurst's Golden Chain Theatre, director Jeff Murray stared into a small monitor while his actors repeatedly performed a bar scene for his low-budget movie "Bigfoot's Big Weekend."

The productions are part of a filmmaking boom in the central San Joaquin Valley. They follow the May shoot of the low-budget film "Showboys" in the Fresno area and the June filming of "Lost On Purpose" in Tulare County. Coming up, Elisa M. Olvera will begin filming her low-budget short movie "My San Joaquin."

Twenty-three productions have shot in the Valley this year - on pace to top last year's total of 33.

"We have seen production in the city of Fresno increase each of the past four years, compared to it being nearly nonexistent prior to 2007. And it looks like we're on track for 2011 to top last year, which is a great indication of our vibrant and growing local filmmaking community," says Fresno Film Commissioner Ray Arthur.

Three key elements are driving this local cinema tempest: cost, location and networking.

Cheaper here

When it comes to filmmaking, it's far cheaper to shoot in the Valley than in Los Angeles or another major city, especially because of how willing people here are to help with everything from free locations to supplying food.

Murray didn't have to pay to use the Golden Chain Theatre for the bar scene in "Bigfoot," an adventure comedy about a wild three-day weekend where the lumbering creature is less elusive than usual. And he has been able to film a large portion of the movie on the 120 acres his family owns in the Oakhurst area.

Local film commissions are helping filmmakers by making it a breeze -- and free -- to get permits to shoot in public locations.

"Ray Arthur, the local film commissioner, is one of the reasons there's a lot of local filmmaking, because he's made everything extremely easy for independent filmmakers to work," Sconce says.

"You go to L.A. and mention films and people want to know what they can get out of you. Here, everyone jumps on board and just wants to be a part of the project."

The city of Fresno dropped Arthur's job two years ago in a budget cut, but the local film commission became part of Creative Fresno, a volunteer organization of creative professionals started in 2004 to promote the city.

New technology also helps keep costs low.

The tiny digital camera that Sconce is using to shoot "The Park," a mocumentary about five groups of travelers who converge on Yosemite to see one final showing of the Firefall, looks like it should be hanging around the neck of a tourist.

It's small but mighty and can create an image sharp enough to be shown in a movie theater. And it costs far less than a bulky film camera.

Close to everything

The current spate of Valley moviemaking is being led by directors who grew up or went to school here. They know the resources.

"We have everything we need right here in this area," Murray says. "We have the mountains, the Valley, several lakes and we aren't that far from the coast if we need to get some scenes of the ocean.

"I think it's better here than in Southern California."

This is Murray's first shot at directing, but he is not new to filmmaking. He was executive producer on the TV movie "Super Shark," starring John Schneider and Jimmie J.J. Walker.

The proximity to Hollywood makes it easier to hire name actors for one or two days of work. "Showboys," directed by Clovis High grad Johnny Soto, featured Ron Jeremy, while established actors Jane Kazcmarek, Octavia Spencer and Aaron Hill -- who is a Clovis High School graduate -- worked on "Lost On Purpose" directed by Woodlake brothers Ian and Eshom Nelms.

Kazcmarek hasn't been acting much lately because she has three children, but she was interested enough in the "Lost on Purpose" script to sign on. She said that one selling point was that she was close to home, which made it easier to agree to be in Visalia for 10 days of filming.

David Novak has worked on everything from daytime dramas to the cable series "In Plain Sight." He agreed to travel to Oakhurst for a weekend to play the sheriff in "Bigfoot's Wild Weekend" because he met Murray on another film shoot.

Making a connection

Many of the actors and crew on the two current productions were found through the Fresno Filmmakers Alliance. Started in 2007 as the Filmmakers Forum, it has brought locals together with film projects.

Arthur says the Fresno Filmmakers Alliance became more productive two years ago when the group's website was made more interactive. Membership went from 50 to 250. Filmmakers can post their needs -- actors, crew, locations, etc. -- and see immediate responses.

Local filmmakers say there is a wealth of local acting talent. Fresno's Nikki Parsneau and Coarsegold's Chase Carter are two examples. Neither has professional acting experience but each landed a lead role in "Bigfoot's Wild Weekend."

Parsneau, who went through the alliance, probably wouldn't have gotten her big break on a movie shooting in L.A.

"I have been able to set up a lot of local acting jobs. I've been wanting to put a lot of stuff on my résumé before I go out and try to get bigger jobs," Parsneau says. "I was trying to go to school to get experience because I didn't think we had such a big film outlook in Fresno."

It's not just films.

Three music videos, two student films, one reality show, a straight-to-Internet production and three documentaries were shot in Fresno this spring. Each generated revenue for the city and Fresno County.

That's the only category where the local filmmaking industry appears to be off. This year's films have only generated about $360,000 for the city.

The amount is much less than in past years, when the city-run film commission worked to bring in bigger productions from out of town. For example, there were only 18 film productions here in 2008 but they were big-budget projects from outside the area and generated $1,156,000 in revenues for the city.

Fresno County Associate Film Commissioner Kristi G. Johnson says small films have little economic impact on the county but they encourage the filmmakers because it helps build a base of crew and acting talent for the larger projects that do leave a deep money imprint.

Arthur says there is work to be done before the local film industry can really take off.

"I think local filming will continue to grow in quantity and hopefully there will be an increase in bigger budgets for future films shot here," Arthur says. "Long-term financial impact, however, will depend on the future growth of two related components: increased production from outside the area and additional industry infrastructure and services such as a professional soundstage or two and a full service equipment rental house."

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at rbentley@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6355. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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