On a rusty boat trailer behind the lifeguard operations center at Will Rogers State Beach on Santa Monica Bay sits a reminder of the recent screen glory days here: It is a bright yellow rescue skiff, numbered BW1, with the flame-red logo Baywatch, blazoned the side.
Baywatch is back, in a feature-film send up of the long-running television show, set for release by Paramount Pictures on May 25. But that boat is still stuck on the trailer. Because the film, based on those intrepid Los Angeles County lifeguards—with their commitment to service, safety and the body beautiful—is set nowhere.
Well, not exactly nowhere. Shot in both Georgia and Florida with Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, and Kelly Rohrbach among its stars, Baywatch—which peddled mythic California to the world for more than a decade—is now the story of a generic, could-be-anywhere beach community called Emerald Bay.
The audience probably won’t care that Johnson, Efron and company are watching the wrong bay. To judge from the trailer, viewers will mostly be watching the bodies.
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Still, it is telling that California taxpayers have spent $330 million annually on screen incentives only to see a signature property like Baywatch get away.
That happened partly because California’s film subsidies are complicated. They involve a multi-step process that awards incentives based not just on budget, but on a “jobs ratio ranking.” That helps move finalists to a “Phase II evaluation,” which specifies the amount of tax credits reserved for the lucky winners. More, actors’ salaries—a major expense for star-driven features like Baywatch—do not qualify for a tax credit that is generally pegged at 20 percent of certain expenditures on studio-released films.
Over a decade in development, with about a dozen producers, Baywatch at one point—while still set in and around Malibu– entered the California sweepstakes, according to a person involved with the movie’s finances. But it didn’t yet have stars or a confirmed director (now Seth Gordon) when it provisionally qualified for credits, based on a budget that grew when those expensive elements materialized.
Television shows, with the stability of seasonal commitments, generally find it easier to hit their targets in California. In fact, about 60 percent of the $330 million in total funding for the current fiscal year is committed to television projects, according to the California Film Commission.
Baywatch, meanwhile, slipped off largely to the environs of Savannah for its beach scenes, and to Atlanta for its urban moments; and it cashed in on a much simpler Georgia subsidy that included reimbursement for above-the-line expenses in its $80 million budget. (For the record, the syndicated television show often shot closer to Oxnard, and moved to Hawaii for its final seasons.)
The filmmakers briefly considered shooting Georgia for California—a kind of gimmickry that works best when a film is heavy with green screen and computer effects. But Baywatch takes place in the flesh, and dressing Tybee Island as Malibu threatened dissonance of a sort that plagued, say, The Founder, which included lush and leafy Georgia shots of an early McDonalds restaurant that was supposed to be in dusty San Bernardino.
The Baywatch folks opted instead to portray a slightly denatured Everybeach, with plenty of scant red swimwear to keep your mind on the, uh, plot.
The decision, though a loss for California, was probably a wise one. And the state film commission’s latest charts hint that MGM’s Valley Girl redo, in any case, will be set in the San Fernando Valley, not the Hudson—New York’s generous incentives notwithstanding.
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