The 'Freaky Tales' production crew filming at the former Loard's Ice Cream in the Dimond District. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

If you happened to see film crews in Oakland’s Uptown district or elsewhere around town between November and January, there’s a fair chance it was for an upcoming feature film, Freaky Tales. The movie, directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, takes its name from a track on Too $hort’s classic 1987 album, Born to Mack. The story takes place in Oakland in the 1980s and loosely draws inspiration from Fleck’s Bay Area upbringing. 

For Jelani Johnson, one of the film’s producers, having it be authentic to the Bay Area and to Oakland meant filming locally. 

“It’s a story that takes place in Oakland. These characters all come from the Bay Area,” he told The Oaklandside. “So we couldn’t shoot this movie in Atlanta or New Orleans or someplace like that, even though it probably would have been financially easier and more advantageous for us.”

Freaky Tales is just one of a growing number of film, television, and streaming productions in recent years to choose Oakland as a storytelling backdrop—and, by extension, bringing increased attention to Oakland and the community of filmmakers who live and work here. Between 2012 and 2021, there were 265 film days by productions working on feature films that obtained permits to film on location in Oakland, according to the Oakland Film Office. In 2017, two major feature films were shot on location in Oakland, including Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, accounting for 54 total feature film dates. In 2016, by comparison, there were eight.

Johnson said part of the appeal of filming Freaky Tales in Oakland was the city’s cultural and political history at a time when audiences and society at large are looking for subject matter that tackles themes like racism and social justice authentically. 

“The cultural richness and history of activism that one might associate with Oakland was affirmed throughout the process,” said Johnson. “I might be talking to one of our transportation drivers, and he’s breaking down the history of unionization in the area. Or I might be talking to somebody in the costumes department, and we’re talking about the Black Panther Party. Or pieces of civic and social history in the region and making sure that’s reflected in the costumes.”

But as Oakland’s film production scene heats up, local filmmakers and others involved in the industry question whether the city is doing enough to support the trend long-term. Barriers like high production costs, few financial incentives, and concerns over safety, they say, all contribute to making Oakland a difficult place to make movies.

Directors face hurdles filming on location in Oakland

When Freaky Tales began production in Oakland this past November, it caused a commotion on social media. Twitter began buzzing with news of the project and its cast (including Pedro Pascal, most recently seen in HBO’s The Last of Us.) People shared celebrity sightings of actors, including of Tom Hanks, who makes a cameo in the film. One local news outlet mistakenly identified Poppy Hanks, one of the film’s producers, as Tom Hanks’ daughter (the two are not related). The same article quoted local business owners in Uptown, where the movie was being filmed, who said the production was keeping customers away and that the city could have done more to alert local businesses.

Jim MacIlvaine, the lone staff person at the Oakland Film Office—the city department that coordinates with film producers and issues film permits—said that when films come to town, especially if a celebrity is involved, it’s common for filmmakers to limit who gets information about the production and filming locations for the safety of the cast and crew.

“It’s a pretty finite world when a major production comes to town,” he said. “Who gets to be informed and how it affects their street, the business, and the residents.” 

Residents are typically only notified if parking in their neighborhood is impacted, he said, and businesses get notified when they’re directly impacted by street closures or blocked street parking. It’s the job of the film’s location manager, not the city, he noted, to reach out to residents and business owners to work through the film’s day-to-day impact in their neighborhood.

For example, when the TV show Blindspotting came to town in 2021, the location manager, Heather MacLean, held Zoom “meet and greets” with West Oakland residents so they would know more about the project and how the filming would impact parking and traffic. MacLean also served as location manager for Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and, most recently, I’m a Virgo, and Freaky Tales. 

MacIlvaine also said it’s standard practice in the film industry for production companies, not local governments, to negotiate a “business disruption fee” with business owners if they experience a loss of revenue during filming. All of the businesses disrupted during the filming of Freaky Tales were offered a disruption fee, according to multiple people involved in the production.

While Freaky Tales is not a major Hollywood production in the vein of Matrix Resurrections (partly filmed in San Francisco), the well-known cast probably served to misidentify it as such, said MacIlvaine, and may have played a hand in some local business owners complaining about the disruptions and the amount of money they were offered.

“That’s where the perception [becomes different from] the reality… when people found out Tom Hanks was around, and Marvel directors were involved in it,” said MacIlvaine.

A street in the Dimond District where parking was blocked off when Freaky Tales filmed in the neighborhood. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

The Oakland Film Office has a production planner checklist to help anyone interested in filming for commercial and non-commercial purposes navigate the steps to obtain a film permit, reserve parking spaces, and notify businesses and residents.

Johnson said filming on location in cities or areas like Oakland that aren’t as familiar with the industry brings challenges—from keeping staff and equipment secure during shoots to dealing with local business owners to incurring unanticipated expenses that can eat into production budgets.

“When you’re shooting in some place that’s not a traditional cinema or television [destination] but it’s important for you to highlight and honor the location where the material takes place, it can inherently just come with its own set of hurdles,” said Johnson.

Laura Wagner, the co-founder of Bay Bridge Productions and the Oakland Film Center, said one of the biggest barriers to filming in Oakland—especially for productions with smaller budgets—is the sheer cost of doing business compared to other burgeoning film destinations like Louisiana or New Mexico.

“It’s so darn expensive to film in the Bay Area. You look at every line in a line item on your budget, and food is more expensive, gas here is more expensive, vehicle rentals, location rentals, housing, talent in hotels,” Wagner told The Oaklandside during our Culture Makers event in December. “And we have to have security because there are robberies that happen on sets here. There are just so many things.”

Despite the challenges, Freaky Tales was among the few recent features to be completely filmed on location. “I’m proud to say that we shot the entire film in Oakland,” Johnson said. “No Los Angeles days, no stages in Burbank.” 

Could Oakland be doing more to create incentives for filmmakers?

The city of Oakland currently offers no financial incentives for filmmakers to make movies here, while across the bay, San Francisco runs a program that allows filmmakers to apply for up to $600,000 in rebates for fees paid to its film department, Film SF, along with “fees paid to other city departments for the use or rental of City property, buildings, equipment, or employees,” according to the city’s website.

Vincent Cortez, an independent Oakland filmmaker who, along with his wife Sofia Cortez, runs Mitchell Street Productions, said Oakland would be well served to follow in San Francisco’s footsteps—not only to woo more largescale Hollywood productions to Oakland but to boost the local filmmaking community here as well.

“Oakland could offer something that is comparable or competitive with San Francisco, but what Oakland could do differently is offer a tier of incentives for independent filmmakers,” he suggested. “Those rebates may not be as big, but they would be of the mindset that we want to support the small indie filmmaker, those up-and-coming companies or entities or individuals.” 

While the city of Oakland doesn’t offer incentives for filming, local filmmakers are offered a tax credit through the California Film Commission. California is one of 35 states currently with a Film Tax Incentive program, offering a 20% to 25% credit on production expenses to qualifying film projects. 

A boom lift equipped with lights and a diffuser is prepped for a night shoot at the former Loard’s Ice Cream location in the Dimond District. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

By comparison, Louisiana, which was the first state to adopt a tax incentive program for film and television productions in 1992 and has seen its local film industry grow in recent years, gives filmmakers “up to a 40% tax credit on total qualified in-state production expenditures, including resident and non-resident labor,” according to the state’s film website.

Wagner, who advocates for strengthening local filmmaking through her work with Oakland Film Center, said the shape of state tax incentives and local rebate programs largely determines where most productions take place.

“The people that fund our films want us to shoot in places that have really strong tax rebates and rebates that are really easy to get,” she said at The Oaklandside’s Culture Makers event about local filmmaking last December. “That’s one of the hurdles, and I have been talking about to some politicians about how to improve that.”

Oakland’s film industry suffered setbacks in recent years

While the city of Oakland has guidelines for obtaining film permits, the Oakland Film Office doesn’t have the capacity to handle the number of permit requests that cities with more robust film offices can, said MacIlvaine. But it wasn’t always that way.

In 2011, then-Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was looking for ways to erase a $58 million budget shortfall and eliminated the Oakland Film Office’s two full-time positions. One position had served as a liaison between the city and filmmakers and production companies, while the other handled permits and insurance, and worked with location managers on notifying neighborhoods and local businesses. Their duties were delegated to existing staff in other city departments, a move that saved the city $210,000 per year. When MacIlvaine was hired, he assumed the duties of both previously-held roles as well as an events coordinator role.

The following year, the Oakland Film Center—which at the time was an incubator for an array of film-related businesses supplying lighting, props, and other production services that had been housed at the former Oakland Army Base since 2004—was shuttered to make way for a redevelopment of the regional shoreline.

MacIlvaine believes that for Oakland to become entrenched as a filmmaking destination, it will need to undo the weakening of its local film community by re-staffing the Oakland Film Office to its previous level and recoup what was lost with the closing of the old Oakland Film Center by converting commercial warehouse space into film production studios.

“There are plenty of warehouses that could be converted in a safe manner to be a film center, production studio offices, and even [store] equipment. But there has to be an overarching business plan,” said McIlvaine. “Invest, hire, ferment, and maybe take a little bit of a loss for a year or two as things bubble up.”

New Mexico offers a case study of what can happen when large local investments are made in the film industry. In 2007, ABQ studios opened in Albuquerque. Netflix acquired the facility the following year, and in 2020 committed $1 billion to expand the studios and make it one of the “largest high-tech and sustainable film production facilities in North America,” according to a report in Deadline. Last year alone, productions filmed in New Mexico brought in $855 million in state revenue, roughly $200 million more than the year prior.

Wagner and others are now working to reimagine the Oakland Film Center, and have been hosting meetings and get-togethers to garner support from others interested in growing the local filmmaking community. Their aims include finding a new physical space for the center.

“We were early in the pandemic when we had this perception that real estate was getting really cheap, especially commercial real estate. We got a committee together. We got brokers, and we started hunting around Oakland to find this space,” she said. “And then we realized it was still going to cost millions of dollars, lots of zoning and architects and all kinds of work.” Wagner said finding a new home for the Oakland Film Center “is still a long-term goal.”

In the meantime, Oakland and the Bay Area are already home to a community of local filmmakers, production assistants, camera operators, and others who work behind the scenes. For Freaky Tales, Johnson said the goal from the start was to staff the production crew with local talent. 

“Our location manager is from Oakland, and our props and costume teams were primarily from Oakland,” she said. “A lot of our key crew members and even several of the actors, our music supervisor, and our composer. If you look up and down our crew, the majority of people are from the Town.”

For MacIlvaine, any conversation about Oakland becoming a thriving filmmaking hub should begin with how the city would stand to reap the economic benefits of everything from transient occupancy taxes when out-of-town production crews stay at hotels and AirBnB, to union jobs, to increased revenue for local business owners who work directly with the productions, to city revenue from permits and parking fees. 

“Filmmakers like Boots Riley, Ryan Coogler, Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, and now Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden continue to prove that there are folks up here that can do the work,” MacIlvaine said. “If we’re going to grow the industry, then someone from the city side has to be part of that.”

Correction: the numbers provided by the Oakland Film office reflect filming days, not the number of projects.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.