From the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock thriller “The Birds,” to the 1985 cult classic “The Goonies,” Sonoma County has long been a filming destination for movies and TV commercials, with scenic drives along Highway 1 and shoots in historic Petaluma neighborhoods serving as well-known backdrops.
But the popularity of the county is growing among filmmakers and advertisers, with its bucolic landscape, unique architecture and rustic feel. Economic activity generated by local filming reached an all-time high in 2015, according to a new report from the Sonoma County Film Office. Film crews pumped $4 million into the county’s economy last year, a 110 percent increase from 2014, said Albert Lerma, a program manager with the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, which includes the Film Office.
“It’s really the scenic beauty that draws filmmakers here,” Lerma said. “We also have a lot of people and businesses here who are willing to work with the film industry.”
Last year, the county and its cities issued 84 filming permits covering 186 days of shooting, compared with 76 permits covering 105 days in 2014, when economic activity was calculated at $1.9 million. The $4 million in economic activity last year was measured by indicators that include money spent on lodging, dining and the hiring of local talent.
“When film crews come here, they need extras and hairstylists. They stay at our hotels, drink our wine and eat at our restaurants,” Lerma said.
Lerma attributed the increase in film activity to the rebounding economy and efforts to brand the county as a filming destination.
County tourism officials point to a number of famous films made in the area, including Hitchcock’s 1943 noir classic “Shadow of a Doubt,” the 1960 Walt Disney family drama “Pollyanna,” the 1973 coming-of-age drama “American Graffiti,” the steamy 1992 drama “Basic Instinct,” the 1996 slasher flick “Scream” and the 2003 comedy “Cheaper by the Dozen.”
Last year, actor James Franco attracted attention on social media when he was spotted in Guerneville while filming “The Fixer.” Actress Sharon Stone drew crowds when she appeared at The Pullman Kitchen in downtown Santa Rosa during shooting for “Running Wild,” a film about wild horses.
“Everyone freaked out when they saw Sharon Stone in town,” said Darren McRonald, owner of The Pullman Kitchen. “The location scouts went to a few restaurants and decided ours worked for them. It was great.”
Petaluma drew praise and criticism for a McDonald’s commercial that featured a scene of an old farm truck rolling past Petaluma’s green hills.
County film officials also touted an increase last year in smaller, independent film companies shooting here.
“Film industry people who are from Sonoma County know how beautiful it is, so they like to come back,” said Colette Thomas, who coordinates local shoots and assists film crews with the permitting process.
A permit is required to shoot on any public land in the unincorporated areas of the county, as well as in its nine cities. Petaluma requires a permit for filming in all areas, including on private property.
Ali Afshar, a Petaluma native who owns the Southern California-based production company ESX Entertainment with Forrest Lucas, shot five feature-length films in different parts of Sonoma County in the past 22 months.
“It’s the perfect setting for the kind of movies we do — American values, American dream-style movies with a hopeful message,” said Afshar, who grew up off of Old Adobe Road in Petaluma and is now based in Burbank.
Economic activity from filming in Sonoma County
2010: $1.1 million
2011: $1.3 million
2012: $1.6 million
2013 $1.7 million
2014: $1.9 million
2015: $4 million