Some people are best known for their connectivity. Colleagues of the prolific mathematician Paul Erdos assigned each other an “Erdos number” — if you’d collaborated on a paper with him, your Erdos number was “one,” if you’d worked on a paper with someone who had previously collaborated with him, your Erdos number was “two,” and so on. In his book The Tipping Point, about how ideas spread and trends catch fire, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about “contagious people” he calls “Connectors,” the few whose lives intersect so many social spheres that they end up tying together the lives of the many. In his view, the glue that holds most of the world together is a Chicago city employee named Lois Weisberg; if you don’t know her, you probably know someone who does. There are, of course, the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Someone really should think up a way of counting how many lives have been connected by Ami Zins.
Zins is the film commissioner for the city of Oakland, and her touch, while pervasive, is so gentle and unassuming that those outside the film industry are often surprised to find how large a role Oakland plays in the development of movies and television projects, or how well-regarded it is by those who do this sort of thing for a living. Banish from your mind the image of the lizardlike movie mogul with the little ponytail, the Ray-Bans, and the sportscar. Robert Bobb — ultimately Zins’ boss, since the Oakland Film Office is a subset of the city manager’s Office of Communications and Mass Media — once dubbed her “Miss Peace, Love, and Happiness,” and the name fits. In an industry focused on fame and exposure, Zins does her best work unobtrusively and off-camera; in a business obsessed with money, Zins’ currency is in her relationships with people.
On an unseasonably overcast July afternoon, Zins is sitting in on her favorite kind of project — one in which she gets to work with new talent, and one in which Oakland gets to play Oakland. (The city often ends up playing a generic “anytown” — or serving as a secondary location for productions set in San Francisco.) This particular shoot, a music video for a rapper named E-Dunn set in a residential neighborhood a few blocks off the 880 freeway, is an all-Oakland production. Director Samm Styles and producer Oliver Sims formed their companies, Habiba Productions and Supreme Films, after graduating from Skyline High; E-Dunn is an Oakland native and former Golden Gloves champ; and the smaller roles in the video were cast using advertisements in local beauty shops. The general theme for the video is “block party” — not entirely unexplored territory in the world of hip-hop — but in this case, the shoot actually is serving as a neighborhood get-together. With the help of the film office, Habiba Productions sent out fliers warning nearby residents about noise and street closures the day of the shoot, and invited them to attend the party and appear in the video as extras.
Remnants of the day’s production litter the block: tables of watermelon slices and fried chicken, balloons and paper flower garlands laced through neighbors’ wrought-iron fences, a dozen kids coloring with chalk on the street underneath a banner announcing the “First Annual Black Is Beautiful Block Party.” A deejay with his turntables mounted atop two green plastic garbage bins spins records between takes, and girls wearing tight white tank tops with iron-on letters proclaiming the names of Oakland neighborhoods — Chinatown, International Boulevard, 98th Street, Linden, Alcatraz — are getting ready for their big scene, which involves gyrating for the camera on a flatbed truck parked beneath the banner.
But the real action right now is on the front porch of a mint green and pumpkin colored Victorian duplex, where Styles is trying to set up a shot centering on guest vocalist Candace Jones. Seated about midway down the front steps, Jones has neighborhood kids planted all around her. During the long setup for the shot, while crew members carefully take measurements for camera focus and dab Jones down with makeup to make her skin glisten as though the sun were out in full force, the kids are kept quiet with Dixie cups of frozen grape juice, colorful toys, and cans of Silly String to shoot during the scene’s final take.
By the time the camera actually begins to roll, the gray and chilly weather has taken its toll; the kids would rather huddle on the steps than bounce to the music. “C’mon kids, c’mon kids,” Styles shouts energetically into a bullhorn, as the playback tape booms and Jones sings along. The kids shimmy halfheartedly as parents off to the side yell encouragement. “The hardest thing to work with is animals and kids,” Styles sighs. The kids do perk up for the final shot when they get to unloose the Silly String and, in violation of orders to the contrary and an agreement sealed with a handshake from the art director, aim it straight for Jones’ hair.
Zins watches happily, her curly hair buried beneath one of her trademark floppy hats and a scarf. “I think the music videos often do create a really good family feel within the neighborhood,” she whispers between takes. In fact, Zins has brought members of her own family along for the day, including her husband (retired Laney College theater instructor Lew Levinson), her sister, and her fourteen-month-old niece.
There are those who might put the phrases “rap video” and “Oakland” together and come up with a violent, or at least chaotic, image. Not Zins. When you ask her to rewind through all of her memories as film commissioner to select a favorite, Zins comes up with another music video shoot, this one for the Santana and Everlast crossover hit “Put Your Lights On,” filmed at the East Bay Dragons Motorcycle Club. She admits being worried that the combination of biker club, big crowds, and an urban setting might go awry, but the shoot turned into a positive community moment. Teenagers hunted for autographs, people gathered on front porches to listen, and Carlos Santana entertained bystanders by spontaneously bursting into Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix covers, and at one point playing Jewish folk songs while the eighty tattooed and pierced dancers hired for the session spontaneously broke out into the hora. “It was a wonderful evening,” Zins remembers.
Film crews do not just show up in town one day with their lights, cameras, and cast of thousands and simply roll tape. The process of putting anything on film — at least on public property — involves a web of permits and other paperwork, which is why most metropolitan areas have a commissioner to guide filmmakers through the process. Zins is one of about 45 such people in the state, and her directive is twofold: to bring media business to Oakland, and, once here, to help production companies successfully negotiate with public agencies, as well as with affected businesses and neighbors. During her three and a half years as the head of the Oakland Film Office, Zins has worked with big names and no-names; she has smoothed the way for million-dollar Hollywood productions as well as for tiny independent and student film projects backed by collections of maxed-out credit cards. Zins has shepherded the production of some of the most high-profile blockbusters shot in the Bay Area, most notably the Clint Eastwood psychological thriller True Crime, in which he played a reporter for the Oakland Tribune, and the second and third installments of The Matrix, which wrapped production earlier this summer. She has also served as godmother to dozens of smaller projects — television shows and commercials, music and promotional videos, and still photography shoots. She seems equally happy to work with all of them.
Zins’ job ranges from long-term stuff, like convincing major studios to site their projects in Oakland, to the incredibly tiny details of film production, like making sure that traffic signals don’t chirp in the middle of a scene shot in a downtown intersection. When Groove producers considered filming here, it was Zins who went to the Oakland Police Department to find out which warehouses people were using for raves; when The Matrix was filming, she was the one who had to dissuade an overzealous meter maid from giving tickets to parked cars that were being used as props in the film. She once single-handedly quelled a small riot when the Teamsters, in a show of union solidarity, tried to shut down a still photography shoot in the Oakland Coliseum parking lot during the Screen Actors’ Guild strike (models involved in still photography shoots weren’t part of the strike). She spends countless hours smoothing jangled nerves when careless productions flood neighbors’ homes with noise and bright lights. She is the person production companies call when they need to find a suitably gothic abandoned train station, or the best Vietnamese food in town, when they need parking for two hundred, or an AC Transit bus rerouted away from a shoot. She is utterly indispensable, and the fact that she is the film commissioner at all is almost entirely an accident.
Oakland has had an Office of Film (OFO) since the late ’80s, but for several years before Zins’ arrival in 1998, it had been allowed to go nearly dormant. The previous film commissioner was on extended disability leave, and when production companies tried to call the office for assistance, often all they got was a voicemail recording saying that the mailbox was full. Veteran location managers had learned to do business in Oakland by keeping blank copies of permits at home and faxing them in for approval, but that system didn’t work as well for new arrivals. As a result, the city was losing potentially lucrative work.
The TV show Nash Bridges which, though set in San Francisco, had originally run its production from Oakland, moved its base across the bay, and it’s hard to estimate how many other potential projects simply gave up calling. One project that Oakland was definitely in danger of losing was True Crime — Warner Bros. had originally wanted to site the film here, but had a change of heart when their calls weren’t returned.
In 1998, Zins was teaching acting and directing at Laney College when, in an attempt to find fieldwork for her students, she tried contacting the film office. She ended up getting hired by the OFO herself — for two weeks. Her tenure was extended for a few more weeks after she learned of a trade show coming up in Los Angeles; she thought a city delegation could make a good sales pitch for Oakland locations and might also be able to make some friends in Hollywood. The city agreed to let her try, so Zins rounded up some of her students and headed to LA, where their networking was so effective that they essentially got Warner Bros. to agree to give Oakland a second shot at True Crime.
With the Eastwood movie in the works, the city offered Zins a full-time position, albeit one that was technically temporary and didn’t come with many resources. “All I came into was, like, a box full of papers that was mostly old mail,” says Zins. “When I’d answer the phone, people would go, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect anybody to answer. A person? Wow, what happened?'” The city was about to find out how much Zins could accomplish with one desk, one phone, one very old computer, and a pack of volunteer interns; word of mouth soon spread that Oakland was back in the film business.
Kristen Holly crouches in the swampy foliage at the edge of Children’s Fairyland. Her look is one of pure paranoia, and in her hand she carries a blaster rifle constructed by a friend at Lucasfilm. “Where are you?” she shrieks, frantically clocking the stretches of eerily vacant land to her right and left. Her look of anguish is no doubt not entirely due to stagecraft — it’s getting chilly and she is sopping wet from the waist down; an earlier shot had required her to fall into Lake Merritt — but she’s doing a good job of conveying panicky isolation even though she is surrounded on nearly all sides by people doing their best to keep out of the way of the camera. In addition to Zins, those trying to stay hidden include two Children’s Fairyland employees, the film’s location manager, its two codirectors, and several members of the cast and crew on break.
Holly plays a lead in Dead City, a low-budget indie shot almost entirely in Oakland at spots like Gaylord’s Coffee, the ArtShip, and the Ruby Room. The plot’s a bit complicated, but here’s the gist: Five young people show up for what they think is a job interview, only to later wake up in a deserted city where they are hunted through the abandoned landscape by sinister agents who won’t show their faces. Director Jason R. Houston had Oakland in mind when he cowrote the screenplay — Children’s Fairyland was a childhood favorite of his — but it turns out that getting Oakland to look deserted wasn’t as easy as anyone thought. “Downtown on a Sunday at sunrise was good for empty shots,” says Houston, casting a glance around the lakeside park. “But shooting Lake Merritt in the middle of the day…” he trails off, shaking his head.
Houston is a striking presence, tall and lanky with wild reddish hair and a beard that he’s cultivated in order to do a cameo as a homeless man in Dead City. At the moment his look is troubled. The shoot, as shoots often do, was running behind, and now came the bad news that their next location — the public bathrooms at downtown Oakland’s Snow Park — had been locked for the night. Yes, they had a permit for the site; no, they hadn’t been told that they’d have to finish shooting there by 6:30.
Zins does some quick mental calculating. On the one hand, she knows the phone number of an officer with the parks police, who could probably let them in. On the other hand, she thinks, maybe it would be better if they found another public bathroom nearby, so they could shoot before daylight fades. Not many people pride themselves on being able to reel off the locations of public bathrooms — in this case, the more decayed the better — but within minutes Zins has suggested an alternate candidate, and the crew sets off to investigate. And there it is, as disgusting as Zins had promised: the floor a sodden pile of old leaves, plastic bags, splintered wooden planking, and a sort of brownish-gray sludge. Better yet, it’s unlocked. Houston, problem solved, beams at the reeking mess. “This is great!” he cries.
It’s the sort of moment that film commissioners live for — the chance to make doors open with a well-placed hint or phone call. Need to shoot an ornate lobby? Zins has the number for the manager of a classy senior center who loves to have filmmakers stop by. Need aerial shots of the city? Zins knows which sergeant to ask for a ride in an OPD helicopter. Need a curb repainted or a street sign moved? Zins knows someone in Public Works who can help. Film commissioners get work done because they know everybody — or, more to the point, they can get to know just about anybody.
Dead City was one of two no-budget indies filming the same week this summer. The other feature, titled I Got What You Want, required an outdoor gunfight scene, and Zins guided its producers through the process of alerting authorities and neighbors about disturbances from simulated gunfire. “I like being able to take something that’s uncomfortable and scary and turn it into an experience that people are excited and feel good about,” she says. She points to what she feels is one of her best moments in public relations: During the filming of a hip-hop movie called Obstacles, the directors had planned to film fight scenes in East and West Oakland neighborhoods that had previously been scarred by gang violence. Residents didn’t like the idea, saying it might bring up bad memories, scare people, or bolster the areas’ already negative images.
When she heard that the mayor’s office was getting concerned phone calls, Zins headed out to smooth things over. “I went to the neighborhoods, talked personally to anybody who had made a call, and explained to them that although the film did include acts of violence, the creators of this project were trying to put out an antiviolent message,” she says. “What we offered to do was invite the neighborhood people to watch how the simulated gunfire was set up, watch how squibs, which are the little explosives they put on a car or body to blow up, were set up by the pyrotechnician. We let the kids look through the camera. Then, of course, the rappers on hand were also really great in meeting with neighborhood kids and signing autographs. We were able to get it so there were no complaints following the shooting. We just invited anyone who was uncomfortable to come be a part of it to see what was going on. We sort of brought them to the inside.”
Another way residents are placated is with money; big productions generally compensate neighbors for their troubles, and reimburse nearby businesses for lost sales. (Zins remembers a production that paid homeowners $100 each to keep their front porch lights on or off all night to ensure continuity for the shoot.) Many business owners and neighbors, particularly in picturesque areas, have begun to demand exorbitant fees. “When The Matrix was here, periodically there would be a business that they would be working with that would have the impression that — The Matrix being a hundreds of millions of dollars production — they could ask for astronomical amounts of money for being touched by the project,” says Zins. “A number of my phone calls were talking to businesses and explaining to them where all that money goes and how it also has to be spread out amongst millions of entities that need to be paid.” Zins and the city don’t have the authority to enforce or negotiate agreements between a production company and citizens or private entities: the best she can be, she says, is “a calming force.” Usually, that’s enough.
Knowing how to handle complicated, sometimes touchy, situations didn’t come easily. “The first couple of years were very intense,” says Zins. “A lot of it was learning curve, a lot of it was having to rebuild the office, not having the infrastructure, even the equipment or the budget.” But Zins also has many factors on her side as she attempts to woo filmmakers to Oakland: a mild climate, a diverse population, a varied landscape, and some very well-preserved architecture. Parking and street closures are also easier in Oakland than, say, San Francisco.
Before Zins’ arrival, dozens of features had filmed at least partially in Oakland; they run the gamut from independents and art films (Drylongso, Until the End of the World) to Hollywood hits (Angels in the Outfield, Mrs. Doubtfire, Basic Instinct, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) to total filler (Kuffs, Flubber, Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie). Perhaps the sign that Oakland was ready to again be a major player came when, after over a year of wooing from the film office and the city manager’s office, Warner Brothers agreed to site the second and third Matrix movies in the East Bay, requiring five days of exterior shoots in downtown Oakland. (The original Matrix was shot entirely in Australia, although special effects were done at Manex Studios on Alameda Island.) “I think they wanted us off their backs,” says Zins. “I think we were just so persistent they said, ‘Okay, we’ll film there! Leave us alone!'” Impressed by the amount of work necessary to pull off the Matrix project, the city agreed to hire an assistant for Zins — her former intern, Jennifer Bauman.
The argument that Zins’ office should be made into a real “department” couldn’t have been hurt by the fact that Oakland Film Office makes good money. As a rule of thumb, California film commissions figure that for each day a project shoots in a city, $42,000 is added to the local economy through permit fees, equipment rentals, local hiring, and money spent on hotels and restaurants. That figure is an average, of course, and some productions spend more than others, but Zins points out that even the lowest budget projects are good for Oakland because, though their budget may be small, they’ll very likely spend it all on local enterprises.
It’s hard to know exactly how much Oakland makes from filming, as most studios are secretive about how much they spend on location. Zins calculates that True Crime had a $3 million impact on Oakland; using the $42,000-per-shooting-day formula, The Matrix would have pumped about another $2.5 million into the East Bay economy, although Zins says that number is “way way way too low,” given the scope of the production and the fact that it employed hundreds of local extras. Again sticking strictly to the formula, Oakland made at least $6.2 million during the first eight months of this year, and that’s just counting production days and not money added to the economy when filmmakers do editing, special effects, and other post-production work at East Bay facilities.
Where does that money go? It pretty much gets spread all over town. The city collects permit fees as well as wages for public employees hired for the shoot (like security officers or building engineers). Other location fees are collected site by site and can vary widely. Fees from filming at a public school site are at the discretion of that school’s principal. Mountain View Cemetery charges $10,000 a day for filming, City Hall charges $1,500 a day, the parks charge $750, the airport charges $400 an hour.
Shooting in the State Office Building, by contrast, is free. The reason? Blame Canada. In recent years, our neighbor to the north has instituted such whopping tax credits for movie makers that many productions are taking their work across the border. This includes projects that many in the Bay Area film community think should have rightfully been made here, such as The Further Tales of the City (a San Francisco feature if there ever was one) and Romeo Must Die (ostensibly set in Oakland). The California film industry considers the flight of productions to Canada to be such a serious threat that earlier this year the state set aside $45 million — to be spent in $15 million chunks over three years — to reimburse costs for filming on California public properties. The not-so-subtle name given to the program was Film California First, and it includes downright Canadian-style perks such as reimbursements for shooting on state property and hiring public employees. Zins thinks Oakland can take some credit for propelling the idea behind Film California First — several years earlier, the city had developed its Economic Enterprise Zone program that provided incentives for those who do business within certain neighborhoods. Because of that program, Warner Brothers was able to recoup about a half-million dollars spent filming True Crime.
Overall, Zins portrays the Bay Area film community as highly cooperative. After all, big features rarely shoot all in one city — a job in one commissioner’s district often means work for all. “In the three and a half years that I’ve been here, I can’t think of a case of anybody feeling like anything was ever done underhandedly, that someone had stolen a project,” says Zins, who meets several times each year with the commissioners from other Northern California locales to trade tips and plan strategy. “We’re not really working to take business away from each other; we’re trying to make a little nucleus of film business here in the Bay Area. The more business we can bring here on a regular basis, the more crew members will be able to rely on the film industry to pay the rent so they can continue living here in the Bay Area instead of feeling that they have to go down to Los Angeles for work. That in turn means a larger crew base, which makes it more likely that major productions will come up here. It snowballs quite nicely.”
Finding year-round work can be challenging. Feature films are by their very nature short-term projects, and the Bay Area film community’s biggest cash cow, Nash Bridges, was canceled last season. There’s no question that Zins’ is a high-risk business, and plans often fall through. During the summer, Zins and her staff put a great deal of effort into pursuing bids for both a power drink commercial and an episode of The X-Files, high-tech shoots which would have had people either vaulting over or driving off various East Bay bridges. In the end the contracts for both went to other locations. After all Zins’ work helping to arrange the gunfight scene for I Got What You Want, the shoot was ultimately moved to another city.
Meanwhile, the slumping economy has drained another employment mainstay — TV commercials — and the threat of a writers’ strike this summer put a wrench in many filming plans. “It’s been dead in the water this whole summer,” says longtime location manager Ed French. “Everyone’s making deals for half their rates, equipment packages are going out for a week for a two-day rate. It’s bad up here but it’s worse in LA.”
That’s raised the ante for Zins. It’s widely known that a fake freeway was built on Alameda Island for the Matrix shoot — BART drivers, in fact, would slow down and point it out to passengers — but when the shoot was done, the freeway came down, a vast disappointment to Zins. “Most of us in the film community would have really loved to have had an empty freeway nearby to facilitate the filming of car commercials,” she says. “People should think about when they’re watching television, how many of those commercials are car commercials? And how many of those commercials used to be for dot-com companies? That’s accounting for some of the major slowdown, I think, in commercial production here in the Bay Area — the real diminishing of commercials for dot-com companies and also Industrial and corporate videos for dot-coms.”
In response, Zins has tried to come up with other ways of bringing in business, like expanding the Film Office’s location photo gallery, and making more photos available on the Web, hopefully attracting new projects. Bauman, along with interns Amanda Melton and Juliana Montgomery, came up with another idea: Throw a huge bash for the film industry at City Hall. In May, the city hosted its first “Ciné Soiree.” Employees of Gondola Servizio sang Italian love songs from the landing. Jerry Brown allowed his office to be turned into a VIP lounge. Furniture rental agency Sam Clar — which does good business when production companies need to set up offices in a hurry — arranged leather sofas throughout the lobby so that people could sit and network. Caterers, equipment houses, and locations set up booths to showcase their services (the Oakland Zoo’s booth had live furry creatures). And best of all, the weather was balmy, encouraging location scouts to stroll around City Hall Plaza. And it worked — while filming on the plaza had resulted in a mere $5,500 in permit fees in the first six months of 2001, during the six weeks following the gala the city made another $5,000 off the plaza alone.
And since going to the film industry seems to work better than waiting for it to call, Zins has started another program: giving location scouts tours of Oakland’s film-friendly establishments. These are not the kinds of tours you can get by buying a ticket; scouts usually want to see restricted areas like rooftops, boiler rooms, sewers, and conference rooms.
When Zins arrives for the first tour of the summer, at East Oakland’s Holy Redeemer Center, she’s already in a good mood. She’s just returned from Eastmont Mall, where she’d realized that some of the health service centers could serve as reasonable stand-ins for hospital settings (East Bay hospitals are notoriously unwilling to allow filming). Her mood is lifted even higher by the number of scouts assembling in Holy Redeemer’s main hall. The center is a former seminary that has been used as a sanctuary for Central American refugees and a hospice for homeless people with AIDS. Now it’s being used mainly as a retreat for religious groups and scholars, but the center’s directors are hoping it will take on yet another life as a movie set. The campus, with its mission-style architecture, red tile roofs, and flowering courtyards, certainly has potential.
The scouts have plenty of questions. Can they build and dismantle sets on the site? Even if they’re not shooting here, can they use the facilities for crew housing or parking lots? Someone asks whether there’s a swimming pool, and a staffer, regret in his voice, says yes, but it’s been drained. As one, the audience lets out an admiring “Oooh” noise, drained swimming pools being one of those restricted-access areas truly appreciated by film scouts, skateboarders, and very few others.
The scouts troop through the grounds, some of them taking shots with digital cameras and using compasses to determine the direction in which sunlight will come through the windows. They inspect the chapel, the kitchen, the meditation labyrinth; Zins even demands to be shown the linen closet. Finally, the group pauses on the deck of a guest house to compare notes. “What here would be useful?” muses Zins. “Well, everything. The labyrinth in that field I find very interesting [for] music videos. But this being a place for religious and faith-based retreats, I would be very careful, too, about what production companies and what kinds of music I would want to send here.
“We do get quite a few calls for chapels for anything from features to commercials,” she continues. “And it’s going to sound funny, but I noticed that in their book they had a picture of one of their bathrooms. It was a very old bathroom with gold sinks.” Met with at least one incredulous stare, she insists, “We do get requests for specific descriptions of bathrooms. They’ll go, okay, we want an old-fashioned bathroom with four urinals and two stalls and a drain in the floor, and you’re like, ‘Oh sure, let me find that for you.'”
How does Zins handle requests for really strange or next-to-impossible-to-find locations? “I say ‘Okay,'” she says. “I have to just have an open mind and attitude. Sometimes these projects come up and I never hear from them again. Or it could turn out to be a huge feature.”
In fact, scouts are accustomed to being asked to track down bizarre landscapes and scenarios. “Sometimes they tell me things and I just stand there with my mouth open,” says freelance location scout Barbara McQuaid, who is listening nearby. Her husband Lance Hoffman, another scout, remembers one of the more unusual Oakland locations McQuaid was asked to look for: a route for an elephant stampede. “It was for Made in America, and it had to be a downtown car dealership where Ted Danson is on an elephant and the elephant gets away from him and runs down and jumps into the lake,” says Hoffman. “Barbara went out and looked around and realized there was an empty parking lot where they very quickly built a car dealership showroom, and from there it was a straight shot down the street to the lake.”
In some ways, Oakland’s urban image precedes it in the film industry. “When I was first in this job, the majority of calls were for gritty inner-city-type scenes,” says Zins. “I felt like we were pigeonholed a little bit, but it’s really opened up now.” The Bay Area’s once-mighty tech economy, she feels, had some success in changing minds. “We get a number of calls for commercials or industrials that want to shoot at a dot-com or a live/work space or in the new high-rise office buildings that are in downtown Oakland,” she says.
Some scouts even feel that Oakland’s improving economy is making it difficult to find suitably gritty landscapes when they’re needed. “It’s the very prosperity that’s coming to Oakland, and the fact that so much energy’s been put into renovating the downtown,” says McQuaid. “I find that when I go back to look for another project, something that was great has now been all renovated and is no longer available.”
Of course, Oakland also does its share of stand-in work. In the Sean Penn flick Hurlyburly, the Oakland hills doubled for the Hollywood hills. Zins sometimes sends scouts up to Joaquin Miller Park for Sierra-like scenery for car commercials. And some residential neighborhoods can pass for just about anywhere in the USA. Location managers often compare City Hall Plaza to a Universal back lot; seen from the center, you can get an entirely different look by shooting each direction — a park, a line of small shops, modern government buildings, City Hall itself.
One day while watching photographers shoot pictures for a Mervyn’s ad on the plaza, Zins stops to chat with Dennis Franckowski, an OPD officer who frequently works security on sets. While trading war stories about past shoots (expensive equipment that walked away, passersby who attempted to sit in the director’s chair), they get to talking about a pilot for a police drama titled Partners that was shot in Oakland by producers aiming for an all-American look. The pilot never got picked up by a network, which was an immense disappointment for Zins and others who’d hoped it would not only provide year-round employment for crews, but show off Oakland a little as a nice place to live.
“I would love to have a series set here,” says Zins. “This is my goal while I am in this job, I want there to be a series.”
“I want there to be a series in Oakland that actually says they’re in Oakland,” seconds Franckowski.
“Exactly,” sighs Zins. “It would be so nice to show off Oakland as a city because Oakland’s so unique.”
The scene is one of Oakland’s most easily discernible landmarks: the Dunsmuir House and gardens. In front of the mansion, a lavish feast has been spread, and well-dressed actors, half of then in American formalwear, half of them in Chinese gowns, are frozen mid-mingle, waiting for the cameras to roll. The director is standing on a white plastic chair, yelling instructions. “Don’t eat too much,” he good-naturedly shouts at the assembled cast, using a paper cup as a megaphone. “Maybe we will need it next time.”
The show is Human Cargo, a 25-part series being made for Chinese television that will somehow be condensed into two episodes for American audiences. Production manager and coproducer Jenny Yeh explains that despite the difficulties of getting the permits necessary to take a film crew and cast out of China, they came to Oakland looking for authentic American settings. The film’s star, resplendent on the lawn in a seafoam green dress, plays the wealthy head of a ring that smuggles people out of China; the distinguished guests are supposed to be American senators. To the production team, Dunsmuir House seemed the perfect backdrop for a story of greed, corruption, and acquired American tastes.
Human Cargo is the follow-up to A Beijinger in New York, a novel adapted for television that became a huge hit in China; 1.4 billion people are expected to watch Human Cargo when it airs. But despite the scale of the project, the whole operation is running on a shoestring budget, and its producers make it clear that they are grateful for Zins’ assistance, which even included helping them get a permit to film in the basement of her office building. “I’ve never met a film commissioner who worked that hard, with such a kind heart, to think on the film company’s side and provide us services, even outside of her duties,” says Yeh. “She would try to find locations, to save us money, to give us other suggestions of where to film.”
Zins, meanwhile, is busy counting familiar faces on the set — “Only four,” she says in dismay, as though the vast majority of the cast and crew had not recently arrived from the other side of the world. She is glad to see several old colleagues finding work in Oakland: a hairstylist and a wardrobe manager, both of whom worked on Nash Bridges; a former Matrix production assistant; and actor Michael Chow, who played a lead in the martial arts spoof Kung Phooey, which also shot in Oakland earlier this year. “These are the really exciting ones, the low budgets that really integrate themselves into the local film industry and the local community and draw people from all aspects of the community,” says Zins. “And the projects that are multicultural, I really like those. Having grown up in the Bay Area sometimes I’ll be on a film set and I’ll be like, ‘Where did all these white people come from?'” She takes a satisfied look around. “This is good. You can feel that there is a lot of respect, a lot of people learning, and people who’ve worked on really major projects are now working on this.”
And Zins is proud for another reason. A historic setting like Dunsmuir House might bring foreign film crews here, but she knows this crew is happy with the treatment her office gave them, and that’s what will keep them coming back. “We haven’t been able to offer a glossy promotional guide with fancy color pictures of Oakland yet, but it’s what we can do as individuals — take the attitude to be friendly and helpful,” she says. “The truth is Robert Bobb is right. My modus operandi is peace, love, and happiness.”
It is hard to imagine Zins as the retiring type, and yet she says that’s what forced her into show business in the first place. “I was painfully shy,” she says. “I signed up for acting actually because it was painful for me to read a paragraph from my paper in English class.” Her college career took her from Laney to UCLA to SF State; it was at Laney that Zins finally got coaxed out onto the stage. “I was terribly shy onstage; I just wanted to do walk-ons, no lines, sort of be part of the background,” she says. Then somebody got fired from a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, and a fill-in was needed to play an “off-with-their-heads type” whose big scene ends up with the actor being dragged offstage kicking and screaming. She took the part. “There was something very exciting and freeing about playing a character who is so extremely different from me. That was a really big breakthrough,” she says.
She also began directing — again, almost accidentally. “I had never before thought of directing, I wouldn’t have had the courage to think of being in charge of that large a project, but when I was looking for scenes to do for acting class, I read this play. I was very drawn to it, I became obsessed with the play, but none of the characters were quite right for me, I felt, and I kept thinking of other people in the acting class who would be good for this part. I started getting images of how I wanted to stage it, and it just came to me,” says Zins. “I had this feeling that I couldn’t let go of. I would be doing something else and I’d get an image for how this scene should work.”
Zins eventually got her master’s in directing from SF State, did a stint as stage manager at San Francisco’s Theatre on the Square, began working as an instructor at Laney College, and acted in the occasional commercial. (A personal favorite is a TV ad for Poli-grip denture adhesive, in which she demonstrates her apple-biting ability and utters the line, “Yikes, that’s incredible!”) Close observers can often find members of her staff playing extras in Oakland productions, and Zins herself has filled in during an emergency or two. Human Cargo viewers will see her make a brief appearance as a secretary with a startling hairstyle. Becoming the head of the Oakland Film Office meant at least a temporary move away from theater directing, but Zins sees a strong parallel between what drew her to directing and her work now. As a director, her favorite part of the process was casting, putting the right people together onstage to make a project work. Now she does it in real life. One night, driving home after a particularly long day, Zins is in a reflective mood. “I like to think of myself as a matchmaker,” she says. “I love connecting other people to each other and reaching out and finding things. The other day we were out for a walk, and I saw a woman parking a car with a license plate that said GORE WON so I stopped, talked to her, exchanged names and numbers because I’m thinking, there’s going to be some film that would like to use this car.
“Four or five years ago,” she continues, “I had a bike accident that almost killed me, and I think since then I’ve had this thing about wanting to get to know all kinds of people. Really get to know them and connect them up to one another. And that’s what I love about this job — being able to find those connections.”
Husband Lew Levinson, who is listening from the front seat, chuckles. “When she makes a good connection she likes to jump up and down and go, Yeah!” he says.
“I certainly do,” says Zins.
Many of the projects Zins helps shepherd never get finished, and some of those that get finished never make it to theaters. Not so with Haiku Tunnel, written and directed by Bay Area brothers Josh and Jacob Kornbluth. (Josh also stars as a character remarkably named “Josh Kornbluth.”) Made for only $200,000, it was the first film to be picked up at Sundance this year, and it opened in the Bay Area last week. The film is a point of triumph for Zins because although it is actually set in an entirely fictional (ahem) city called “San Franclisco,” the production managed to shoot in all three Oakland government buildings on City Center Plaza, including the personal offices of Jerry Brown and Robert Bobb, a fact that clearly impressed the directors themselves. “When you’re a young, excited filmmaker, it seems like you never get to the guy who gets you into the building, but Ami really helped us make that happen,” says Jacob Kornbluth. “She did a search herself and called people downtown and took us around on the days we were scouting. Her heart was really in it; she was fighting for us, and she was excited about our project, and she really wants filming to happen here.”
“We were sort of amazed and delighted when Ami Zins said we could use the mayor’s office,” adds his brother. “I guess they like her or something because they let her have the run of the place.” Close observers and city employees may recognize certain lobbies, offices, hallways, and elevators while watching Haiku Tunnel; during the movie’s premiere at San Francisco’s Bridge Theater, Zins was ready to supply an excited poke in the ribs whenever something familiar came into the frame.
“There are some people in the world for whom film is something very commercial, and the essence of it is a product,” says Josh Kornbluth. “Ami’s approach clearly seems to be the opposite of that. The thing she seemed to be excited about was that people were creating stuff, not whether the end process was commercial or not. It makes all the difference to have that spirit. When you have people like Ami Zins who love people and love film of any kind or size, that can’t help but be conducive to other people wanting to tell stories to not immediately think, ‘I have to go to LA or New York or Vancouver.’ It makes it possible for people to not only make films in this great place but to live here.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by just about everyone who has crossed paths with the Oakland Film Office. (“Do you know how much this is costing me?” Zins hisses in a fake stage whisper after the umpteenth producer or location manager has spontaneously launched into an accolade.) And yet, in an industry where everyone seems to want to be a star or a starmaker, what Zins wants as a reward for all her efforts is very small indeed: for Oakland to get a line of thanks in the closing credits. As Haiku Tunnel‘s seemingly interminable list of credits begins to roll, for the first time Zins seems a little nervous. In her lap, her fingers are crossed. “I want to see the Oakland Film Office up there,” she whispers. And when her name and title do come up seconds later, her whole seating section — packed as it is with her former interns and students — bursts out into hollers. The Kornbluth brothers later single her out from the stage, and thank her for all her help. As the audience cheers and claps, Zins folds her hands over her heart in a mock sigh. Then, as the lights come up and the crowd begins to dissipate, Zins is immediately out of her seat, her eyes bright, her hat and scarf bobbing as she weaves through the crush, introducing herself, giving congratulatory hugs, and making connections.Film crews don’t just show up in town one day with their lights and their cast of thousands and just let the cameras roll. They need help every step of the way. They need Ami Zins.