Sac gets reel
Can the city transform a vibrant amateur film scene into a legit industry?
It’s a busy night at the Crest Theatre. Chatty folks mill about the lobby. Audio-video technicians scurry around, presumably to answer two questions: Is my equipment working, and will it for the next five days without catching fire?
Movie-goers flood the main theater. Lights dim. The curtain rises. The projector clicks, and photon particles beam across the room.
On screen, a Brian Setzer-esque jazz orchestra closes its act to enthusiastic applause. For bandleaders Finn and Marco, performing is their passion. But they learn that their club is shutting down, and a series of events lure the pals down a dark spiral of Sac-noir, full of corruption, murder and a nail-biting climax at what looks strikingly like Lincoln Regional Airport.
To director Jack Dever, Finn and Marco is much more than that. For the cast and crew, the screening culminated hundreds of hours spent writing, shooting, directing, acting, editing.
As a local director, Dever was limited to his immediate resources. It’s a common situation for many Sacramento filmmakers, where shooting a Hollywood-level blockbuster has always been a far-off dream.
Then Lady Bird fever struck.
It has been more than a year since the Oscar-nominated film sparked interest in developing Sacramento’s film economy. The City Council recently approved an arts and culture revitalization plan called Creative Edge, which cited Sacramento native Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut as a major factor in its goal to transform the city into an arts hub. The movie, set mostly in the city, “advanced the story of Sacramento, both locally and nationally.”
Another filmmaker with Sacramento ties, Ryan Coogler, has also become a household name after Fruitvale Station, Black Panther and Creed. He even finished No. 6 for Time magazine’s Person of the Year 2018.
But can Sacramento’s amateur film scene capitalize and shoot for Hollywood stardom?
Roll the tape
After Finn and Marco‘s screening, Dever told the audience he first sent the script to an agent who said it wasn’t “shoot-ready.”
But having worked in television for over 30 years, Dever disagreed. With $20,000 of his own money and borrowed equipment, he set out to prove the agent wrong.
His film premiered in September at the 19th annual Sacramento Film and Music Festival, a showcase of Sac-related features, shorts and music videos. Nathan Schemel, the festival’s director, said its purpose was twofold: to screen great films and inspire local filmmakers.
“When I graduated from film school, nobody was telling me to make anything, so I didn’t,” said Schemel, 41, who has produced the Sacramento Kings’ sports broadcast House Party Live and a reality TV show called Turf War. “I’m giving people a deadline just so they will create something.”
This year, Schemel’s fest stoked filmmakers in three ways: “Frankenfilm” saw short adaptations of Frankenstein, “Sac Music Seen” paired directors and bands to make music videos, and a 10X10 shorts competition challenged contestants to bust out a 10-minute film in 10 days.
Some produced serious films; in Afterimage, directed by Javier Fernandez, a young man goes blind and struggles toward acceptance. Others were humorous, including a music video for local band Abandon Theory’s song “Always Late,” which featured an adorable turtle puppet suffering from alcoholism and depression.
The event showcased the range, depth and passion of Sacramento’s film community. But is it all enough to create a thriving local film industry?
Flickers of hope
Sacramento’s film scene is full of talent and enthusiasm, says Matthew Gilliam, a TV producer and filmmaker who was recently appointed to the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, which votes on city-funded arts projects.
“I personally am advocating for the Sacramento film community to move into being a film economy,” he says.
Currently, Gilliam says, the film scene consists mostly of hobbyists and amateur filmmakers learning the ropes. In a film economy, he says, local movie-makers would make a living in Sacramento, working on big-budget productions and getting the experience necessary to form stable careers.
Dever, who considers himself a hobbyist, says Sacramento’s vistas are what might draw more Hollywood productions, such as Flying Horse, starring Gary Oldman, which is set to shoot here soon. “Sacramento has to offer them something they can’t get in L.A.,” he says. “But I think our biggest advantage is locations that can look like anything.”
Sac is also home to veteran DIY filmmakers including Darin Wood and Christy Savage. But even after nearly 30 years making low-budget monster movies (Planet of the Vampire Women; Badass Monster Killer), they say shooting locally is challenging.
“There’s a smaller talent pool than there would be in a larger city,” Wood says. He uses their current sound guy as an example. “There’s probably 10 or 15 of him in L.A., but there’s only one of him in Sacramento.”
At the moment, the pair are shooting a Conan the Barbarian-inspired fantasy feature, Grunk the Smasher. A tale of violence and romantic rescue, the film’s crowd-funding campaign raised $5,265; the production has used mostly a volunteer cast and crew.
“Making a feature film in Sacramento is probably not the most lucrative thing to do,” Savage says, laughing. “A lot of [crew] make their living doing commercials.”
Acting isn’t exactly lucrative, either. Sacramento-based actor Jordan Potch (Marco from Finn and Marco) says you have to be aggressive, checking local casting websites such as Saccasting.com (since Sacramento is not included on the mainstream casting websites), auditioning and networking. Making a living solely in Sacramento isn’t easy, which is why he’ll travel to the Bay Area for gigs, too.
“For me to be just in Sacramento, it’s not enough,” Potch says.
Gilliam says he hopes to help build a robust film industry to benefit the entire film community, including actors, directors, screenwriters and crew members.
He points to what Atlanta did. In 2015, its city government backed training programs for crews so that large movie and TV productions filming in the area didn’t have to fly in a crew from L.A. It worked; producers can now hire skilled workers who already live in the city.
In Sacramento, Creative Edge calls for the city to bring in a consultant to assess what resources are needed here, including studios, equipment rental companies and training opportunities. But that’s still pretty far off, says Gilliam.
More immediately, the city will begin restructuring the Sacramento Film Commission, which operates under the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau and is responsible for overseeing permits and guiding outside productions to the right people and places. The commission has one part-time employee, but Gilliam says that restructuring would involve bumping up the position to full-time.
Laurie Pederson, director of the Capital Film Arts Alliance, says that is vital.
“Hopefully a full-time film office can be more proactive, not just in bringing in outside films, but also in supporting the local independents who are growing their skills,” she said.
Meanwhile, Sac’s film scene reels forward. The California Film Foundation is currently taking submissions for Fashion on Film, a festival set for February in collaboration with Sacramento Fashion Week. Wood and Savage are hammering away at their medieval epic, which they hope to finish in 2020.
Dever is writing a Western. He probably won’t be sending it to that same agent, though. “I don’t think she read past page two, which really annoyed me,” he said.
And if Sacramento’s film industry grows stronger, maybe it will not only produce the next Greta Gerwig or Ryan Coogler, but allow them to set up a studio here, too.