"Disney Ogles City Hall,
Elaborately Refurbished Chamber Draws Notice of Film Crew,
But the Promises to be Careful Aren't Reassuring Everyone"

by Rachel Gordon, San Francisco Examiner, 25 February 1999

Walt Disney Pictures wants to turn San Francisco City Hall's elaborate legislative chamber into a temporary movie set, a notion that has several city officials jittery over whether the newly refurbished civic showcase can be properly protected during filming.

"I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say I was nervous about this," said Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano.

Disney wants to use the legislative chamber for five days or so in April or June to film part of "Bicentennial Man," a kind of Pinocchio-as-robot futuristic flick starring San Francisco superstar Robin Williams. The company would pay The City $5,000 a day for use of the room, plus $300 a day for a Film Commission permit.

The project has the strong backing of the mayor's film office, which has been busy marketing City Hall, which reopened last month after a nearly four-year renovation, and doesn't want to send Hollywood the message that San Francisco isn't a film-friendly location.

Ammiano's chief concern, shared by the city architect and the clerk of the board, is whether the historic meeting room — replete with hand-carved Manchurian oak walls and an ornate painted plaster ceiling — would be damaged.

But Rory Enke, location manager for the movie, vows that great care will be taken during production to assure no harm will be done. In fact, he plans to hire the moving company that handled King Tut's 1979 Bay Area visit to help move things around. Anything that's repositioned, he said, will be put back. Anything that may get banged up will be fixed.

Enke picked the Arthur Brown Jr.-designed City Hall chamber for its beauty and lighting, wanting to use it for a scene in which Williams' character makes an impassioned speech for the civil rights of robots.

Ten years ago, he persuaded The City to let him shoot the movie "Class Action" in the room; that was the last movie filmed there. Enke said no other location in The City would be as desirable for the scene.

The 84-year-old French Renaissance-style City Hall, a national landmark that was seriously damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, reopened last month after closing in 1995 for a $293 million renovation and face lift. It is now restored to its original architectural splendor with new technological advances mostly hidden behind the walls.

"I'm really concerned about the integrity of the chamber," said Gloria Young, the clerk of the board. "What if there's an "oops' there?"

City Architect Tony Irons, who oversaw the City Hall restoration, also expressed reservations about throwing open the doors to a film crew.

"It is a highly significant room, and any damage, even nicks and dings, would be extremely expensive to repair," he said.

Another concern is whether the chamber's newly installed and sensitive lighting, computers and in-house video system could withstand tampering.

But Irons stopped short of advising against the film project, saying it's a policy decision for the Board of Supervisors.

When pressed, however, he said, "My inclination would be for the Board of Supervisors to be extremely careful to have any type of commercial incursion in the space."

The city attorney's office also raised the issue of whether allowing Disney to film in the chamber would open a floodgate of requests from other moviemakers, and whether The City would have the legal authority to turn them down if they met the same conditions as those placed on "Bicentennial Man."

Wednesday, Enke made his pitch to film in City Hall and skeptics had a chance to voice their apprehensions during a Board of Supervisors' Finance Committee hearing on the proposal. The full board is scheduled to take up the matter Monday.

Mayor Willie Brown, a movie fanatic, shied away from giving the proposed project a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, stating: "The building at all times must be totally and completely protected. The decision not to use it must be based on whether there'd be damage to the building."

Carole Isaacs, acting director of the mayor's film office, said she was confident the film crew would leave things as it found them.

"There are mega-assurances," she promised.

Professional movie making in San Francisco is big business. Isaacs said that in 1997, the latest data available, the industry brought $365million of residual business to San Francisco. The money went for everything from hotel rooms and florists to salaries for set builders and caterers.

"Bicentennial Man" already has more than 90 people on the job building sets. When filming starts, another 30 to 40 crafts people and technicians will be on the payroll, according to a representative for their union.

©1999 San Francisco Examiner

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