The San Diego film and video production community is a small, but tight-knit group, made up of many talented individuals, but when it comes to professional productions, our city is often over-looked. There is a deep pool of production veterans and talented up-and-comers producing quality work, often on-par with what is being produced with our larger northern neighbor: Los Angeles. As a co-owner of a San Diego-based filmmaking agency, I often ask myself, why aren’t more productions taking place in our beautiful city? It’s a question that frequently surfaces amongst my local production peers whenever we’re working on sets. Nearly everyone within this community, my company included, supplements our income and project load with out of town, and even out of state work. Why, with our amazingly consistent sunny weather, stunning locations, and a talented roster of crew members, why can’t San Diego attract the high-caliber projects that typically end up in Los Angeles, New York, or Atlanta?
I’m a transplant from Northern California, and don’t claim to be an expert on the history of San Diego’s involvement in the film/video production industry. But I do know someone who has been here long enough to have ridden the good times and the bad. Martin Banks was once the owner of Video-Gear, a local production equipment rental/retail house. I should also mention that for many of us, it was the rental/retail house in San Diego county for years.
Martin has since shuttered the doors on Video-Gear and moved on to his next chapter; this interview was conducted just weeks before he announced its closing. The thoughts and insights he shared with me still ring true, and in some ways, since Video-Gear’s closing, the conversation hits even closer to home now. Hopefully, the dialogue between Martin and I inspires some conversations of your own, with your production peers, and your local elected representatives. As Martin says towards the end of our interview, there is much work to do…
Carlos Foster – What’s interesting to me is that San Diego’s like the sixth or seventh largest city in the United States —and we’re in such close proximity to Los Angeles— but there are so few large productions taking place here. I’m really curious to know why do you think that is.
Martin Banks – I think there are a lot of reasons why we have so few of those really large productions – like a TV series or even production work from Mexico—that we used to get and we don’t see anymore. San Diego, from my point of view, is at an inflection point where we had been… it’s almost a cliché… it was a tag line… “Hollywood’s backlot.” And we were that. We were accessible, close by and easy to work with. A great local crew base. We had all that and the city, frankly, just got into some trouble politically and we had a great administrator, Jerry Sanders… I don’t want to get off into much of politics, but in my opinion, he was a great administrator and we have a city council that has worked diligently over the past how ever many years to get us on track as a good, physically sound, responsible city. That’s taken the attention away from a lot of the smaller industries and businesses in San Diego. We’re still well known for our biotech and high tech industries and those have been self sustaining because they had that mass. But film production in particular when you’re talking about large TV projects, large shows, series, larger TV commercials, those sorts of things… That’s not an industry that has any type of mass in San Diego that could be self-sustaining. If you’re in a city like Los Angeles or New York, there’s enough mass there that they can continue on without a tremendous amount of support from the city.
I said that we’re at an inflection point and I believe that to be true because I see new leadership from our city government. They are much more responsive to the smaller segments of the San Diego economy. It’s easy to be biotech up on Torrey Pines and have the big research projects and all that. And that’s glamorous in it’s own way, and it’s easy to forget about our industry- film and television here. Because while we are glamorous, it’s not self-sustaining and we need the help from the city.
CF – When I talk to other filmmakers or people in San Diego production, they all really wish that this city could be something like Los Angeles, and retain the quality of life we have down here, but I think everyone is kinda resigned to the idea that it will never get to that point. Do you think it is possible to push for that status? Or will San Diego always be different?
MB – Well, if we have the right political leadership, and the political will to push for it, we could do that. We don’t have the corporate industry here to have private enterprise take that lead. It has to come from the city. If it doesn’t… then it’s not going to happen. We’ve kind of shot ourselves in the foot unintentionally because (pause) wow, did we have some talented people. We still do. But when I’m talking about talented people I was thinking more of crew members. People that work crew positions. Very specialized jobs. Those jobs went to Atlanta… and Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Vancouver. When those jobs went there, those people followed. They really had no choice. It was either leave the industry and do something else or go where the jobs are. And so many of those people chose to go where the jobs are.
Fortunately, we still have a lot of really creative people here. We have an abundance of creativity that, from my point of view, is really untapped and that’s what I think is really simmering beneath the surface. So, while we may not attract those big jobs from outside of San Diego as much as we have in the past, there is an opportunity to begin creating those jobs here locally — if we have the political will to build up an identity within the city for more than [just having] amazing micro-breweries, wonderful beaches and high tech and biotech.
CF – Because of your unique position as [an equipment] supplier in the city, you’ve come in contact with just about everybody who’s involved in any level of production. So, do you privately shed a tear for anyone who says, “Well, Martin, I’m moving to LA, so I may not see you so much.”?
MB – (chuckles)
CF – You know that guy or girl that makes you say, “No! You had so much potential to bring something great here!”
MB – I’ve made those moves myself, for other reasons. So I totally and completely understand that. There’s one person who comes to mind that moved about two years ago and now he’s back because he wants to work on his own projects. I know someone else who was just immensely talented and it was just… no other choice but to move to LA… and he’s still in and around San Diego but really doesn’t work here because the opportunity just isn’t as abundant as it is in LA.
CF – We see that a lot with many of the people that we crew out ourselves… they’ll spend about half — or maybe less than that – of their time working on productions in San Diego, but they all have a friend or family member in LA who they crash on their couch and do a production there… And sometimes I think that almost creates a stigma for the hometown – San Diego – because I’ve had clients who when they come to us, it’s almost like they found water in a desert and are like, “Oh my god, I found a production company in San Diego that can do this job!” And it’s almost like a surprise to them. How do you think we can start getting away from the perception that we are just the backlot of LA or the “second-rate” LA? Because we’ve even had clients who say, “No, don’t cast in San Diego. The top talent is in LA.” But we’ve found equally talented people here.
MB – You and I both know that those [talented] people are here both in front of the camera and behind the camera… Those folks are here but they are hard to draw out.(sigh) Your question is such a good one. There is no easy answer. It’s gonna take a lot of hard work and dedication by the people who live and work here, and the people who have the opportunity to promote San Diego as a destination spot. I totally understand your analogy to the desert. We get that a lot as a supplier. It’s a frustrating situation. And the only solution I know of is gonna be years of dedication and hard work. Not only by the people in our community but by the people in leadership. We need to find a champion who can get out front and drive this thing.
CF – How aware is our filmmaking community that the real key to turning this engine on lies with our civic leaders? I hear a lot of people saying it’s gotta be a grassroots movement – and that may be partially true – but I don’t often hear other filmmakers say that we need a film commissioner or a mayor who really supports the [production community]… or are aware that there is this untapped source of revenue here and jobs. Is it a combination of both? Production companies just pushing harder to bring jobs here? Or is it split evenly between the city and [filmmakers]?
MB – I think you’re right. I think it’s a combination of both. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of the local talent we’ve got have just sort of resigned themselves – as you said – [to thinking] it is what it is and there’s nothing I can do about it. So they stop showing up and they stop caring and they stop being involved, and they frankly just kind of give up on San Diego. And in a lot of ways I can’t blame them because it is a challenge here in San Diego.
Let me put it this way and go from a different direction… With all the other cities, states, regions, countries promoting themselves as production destinations… If our city, our region, is not showing up to promote ourselves as a production destination, we won’t even be thought of. It’s not even a consideration. We’ve got a whole list of folks who are going to show up and work hard to get that business and bring it to their region and if we don’t show up as a region, or as a city, then we aren’t even gonna be thought of.
CF – And we know it can be done – because if a city like Atlanta can – and we have the superior weather, proximity to… I won’t say “superior” talent but probably a deeper roster.
MB – A deeper roster definitely. It wasn’t long ago that you could show up in Atlanta and be proficient in a crew position and go to work the day you landed. That was really the word on the street. If you need a job, go to Atlanta. And we’ve got that in spades right up in LA. There are plenty of people who are working up there who, if they could find the same quality of work down here, they would be in San Diego. So it’s not a lack of talent. It’s a matter of a perceived lack of talent.
CF – What do you think production companies in San Diego are doing “right”? Have you seen progress – or maybe you’ve seen a lack of progress? But we know that the industry in San Diego is changing and there has been a movement towards the boutiques over big studios [like the one] out in Mira Mesa…
MB – Stu Siegel productions?
CF – Right. Those aren’t popping up anymore. Rather, it’s smaller places a lot like our own [Blue Barn Creative]. People are buying good equipment. Generating good ideas. Do you think that might be the direction we are heading in film production – specifically in San Diego?
MB – We’re actually talking about a different segment of the industry now. We moved from talking about episodic production, feature film, TV commercials – those sorts of productions, now into a more (like you said) boutique production houses or production companies. And I think you’re right – we do have quite a few of those and quite a few really good ones. It’s surprising to hear clients say, “My! We found so many good ones in San Diego. They can do amazing high end production.” And I know you’re one of those guys, and there are others. And all of you as a group do really first-class, amazing work. It’s wonderful to see. The change that I’ve noticed over the last number of years, in the boutique production companies, is so many of them have moved from being just a production company to a digital marketing company. Dare I say “agency”.
So – while they still do production for hire – and that could be a lot of their work – they’re branding themselves now more as a total solution either through partnerships with other companies or just building in house – the ability to provide a total solution for a client. And I’m gonna go off on this just a little bit…
CF – Please!
MB – What we have now in San Diego is a really unique opportunity because while we don’t have those big corporations… we still have Qualcomm – which does a ton of video production. It’s amazing how much they do. We have Illumina – which is the company to watch here in San Diego. They will be the next Qualcomm, in my opinion. Other than that, what we have are just scads of small and medium-sized corporations. They are just everywhere. And what these small and medium-sized corporations need is an understanding of the ability of video production to brand and promote their business better than anything else. It’s an open field of opportunity to develop that business and to take these corporations to their next level and bring them up. And I see it as a real opportunity that is being overlooked because it’s not glamorous; working for some company that has 200-300 employees, and nobody knows their name. And so what? They need you! They need your videos and your marketing! They need your help!
As more and more companies begin to understand our [industry] better and what it takes to really produce motion pictures that are of a high quality and are consistent with the brand that they have, and have already established – the tide will begin to turn. Video production is not going away and is gonna become ever more relevant to the branding of businesses worldwide but specifically these small and medium companies who need attention here in San Diego.
CF – What can these [boutique production companies] do to get themselves out in front of potential clients, to create a presence just so that they know that there are local production companies who produce high quality imagery and get the results they need? That they don’t need to go to LA or hire an agency to then bring in a production company who was probably just right around the corner from them anyway?
MB – One of the frustrating things I know for a lot of production companies here in town have been their relationships with the agencies. These are agencies that do the creative work, and the planning, and the media buys, and all that sort of thing. The traditional agency/production company relationship doesn’t seem to be strong here. I spent twelve years in New York City where I worked in an agency and we had immensely strong ties to our production companies that we would hire for different projects. And that sort of loyalty doesn’t seem to exist here and I don’t know why.
I hear time and time again stories about these production companies in meetings with the agency, and the client, and the agency says, “Ya! I know somebody that can do that in LA.” And the production company says, “Uhhh. We can do that here in San Diego.” And the agency says, “Oh yeah – but these people up in LA are amazing.” So why did you call us to this meeting? And that’s just one anecdote but I’ve heard this time and time again from boutique production companies here in town. So a little more loyalty from our own local agencies – and I don’t want to put all the onus on them, but come on guys! Have our back a little bit!
CF – Yeah, it definitely goes back to what we talked about earlier, where it’s this misperception that the best talent is not here. It’s somewhere else.
MB – Sure. And I believe that’s also driving this transition from production company to total digital media solutions company. Where it’s like, if we can’t work with the agencies, and they’re not gonna back us up, then we’re just gonna go after their work.
CF – Absolutely. I want to bring it back to the way that San Diego is changing and talk a little bit more about the city because that seems to be a big part of this conversation. What are tangible things that you think production professionals in San Diego could do to start moving towards a more positive or stronger production industry?
MB — I see a little bit of a genesis of a creative community developing here. Unfortunately, I’m not in other cities to see how that’s transpiring around the states or if it’s just us, or if this is a nationwide cultural shift. But new programs like UCSD’s new design lab that is not just cloistered on the UCSD campus; they are active in things all over San Diego. We have a creative mornings chapter here in San Diego that is now a year old. Hundred and hundreds of people show up to their meetings. I just so enjoy these events and they’re [full of] really creative people who are so on top of their game, and they’re engaged and they’re thriving. I don’t see the production people at these events. And if we are going to brand San Diego as a creative community because clients want something that is not a four-door sedan, they want a sports car or an SUV – they want something unique and different in their video and their branding – then our video and production community needs to create that awareness from within and become more involved in this creative renaissance, if that’s the right word.
But this genesis of a creative community here in San Diego? It’s happening. And hopefully production won’t get left behind. But that’s up to us to be involved and help drive this, and see it move forward. We still have a lot of work to do.