Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Castro merchants bank on movie magic


Background extras for the film Milk, dressed in the garb of the 1970s, wait on set for shooting the next scene. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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The decision to film the Milk movie in the Castro could provide the city's gay neighborhood with something many say it has been lacking in recent years: star power.

Business leaders and tourism professionals are banking on the likelihood that the film, starring Oscar winner Sean Penn as the late Supervisor Harvey Milk and directed by Oscar nominee Gus Van Sant, will be a box office smash and critical darling. In turn, they are envisioning that the movie's success will lure travelers, both gay and straight, to visit San Francisco.

"We think that using the film could be a great opportunity. Naturally, the ultimate quality will mean a lot, but it certainly is something that we are exploring," said Joe D'Alessandro, the openly gay executive director of the city's convention and tourism bureau.

For some time business and civic leaders have fretted that the Castro has lost its luster since its heyday in the 1970s, when it transformed seemingly overnight from being a run-down section of town to an international gay mecca.

AIDS nearly wiped out the Castro in the 1980s and the neighborhood's re-emergence in the 1990s cratered again after the dot-com downturn a decade later. Skyrocketing real estate prices have further eroded the Castro's gay population and made it increasingly unaffordable for younger LGBT people to call home.

In recent years talk has turned to everything from erecting a giant rainbow sign and installing gigantic ruby red slippers to banning chain stores and drawing more unique shops to the Castro as ways to boost business and bring renewed excitement to the area.

With newer gayborhoods constantly emerging in cities across the country, the Castro has seen its gay cachet diminished. Younger LGBT people no longer need to travel long distances to find gay bars, shops or a community to call their own.

"Over recent years we have experienced a decline in tourism. Many cities have gay areas now," said Kathy Amendola, owner of the Cruisin' the Castro tours. "I feel like the Castro is not another neighborhood where it is just gay flags are being raised. It is the heart and soul politically, financially, and culturally of the LGBT culture. We just didn't turn gay overnight."

With the Milk movie not just depicting the life of Milk, the country's first openly gay man elected to public office, but also of the neighborhood's role in the birth of the gay rights movement, the hope is it will be a panacea for the Castro's recent problems. Herb Cohn, president of the Castro Upper Market Community Benefit District board, said the exposure the Castro will receive from the film could translate into a boon for local businesses.

"We believe this film, by highlighting the Castro, will be very beneficial to everyone involved, including the businesses," said Cohn, who is also a Merchants of Upper Market and Castro board member. "The film is not only about Harvey's life but really is a film about the Castro as well. It raises the profile of the neighborhood, and that is a good thing for businesses in the neighborhood."

Even the filmmakers have said they hope their movie will lead to a bump up in tourism and be a fiscal benefit to the Castro.

"Our great hope is this will revitalize this district and make it a major tourist destination," Dan Jinks, one of the movie's producers, said at a meeting last month with business owners.

The local tourism board is already discussing how to take advantage of the city's and the Castro's star turns in the film. D'Alessandro pointed out that many cities use movies to help in promotion, including San Francisco.

As examples he listed European draws Salzburg, which still uses the Sound of Music, and Rome, which draws on Roman Holiday and Three Coins in A Fountain. In the United States, he pointed to how Astoria, Oregon advertised itself based on the film Kindergarten Cop and Dyersville, Iowa turned its role in Field of Dreams into a marketing ploy.

"We still use Vertigo frequently. Also, people always want to see where Dirty Harry was filmed, where Mrs. Doubtfire lived or where their favorite scene in the Pursuit of Happyness took place," said D'Alessandro.

The movie travel tie-ins especially come into play when the films become classics, he said.

"The key is that the movie has to be successful, a classic, or have a cult following," said D'Alessandro.

Working to San Francisco's

Production crew members bring the renowned gay bar Toad Hall back to Castro Street as they prepare for filming Milk . Photo: Rick Gerharter
advantage is that no other gay neighborhood has had quite the role that the Castro will play in the Milk biopic. The film crew has reverted the streetscape back to its 1970s setting and began shooting scenes along Castro Street last week. Next week the production is set to film several march scenes in the neighborhood.

"There have been very few films with this kind of scope. This is a major film, and I don't think we have seen a gay neighborhood made over like this before," said Jerry McHugh, a senior research director at the gay-focused Community Marketing Inc. "It shows the Castro off in ways recent visitors haven't seen it."

The last gay-themed film to be showered with attention was Brokeback Mountain. But the gay cowboy movie did not showcase any gay neighborhoods. McHugh said the only gay film he could recall driving up visits to an LGBT destination was The Birdcage , the American remake of La Cage aux Folles starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. The movie was set in Florida's gay-friendly South Beach area near Miami.

Instead of selling a beach vacation, the Milk movie could tap into people's desire to visit places with a connection to past events, said McHugh.

"Because of the historical reference to it, tourism could be more impacted than say, a gay couple meeting the religious right and trying to save face," he said, referring to The Birdcage 's plot. "Right now, politics regarding gays and lesbians is a bigger issue than it ever has been."

While Amendola said international visitors continue to take her tours, domestic travelers have dropped off. She predicted that the movie will be a success and draw American tourists back to town.

"Absolutely. This film with Sean Penn in it takes it to the Academy Award level and this film will win an Oscar," she said. "That is really going to be the floodgates opening."

The film has already brought positive changes to the Castro that local leaders say will improve visitors' experiences. The most visible difference to date has been an upgrade to the Castro Theatre's marquee and neon sign.

"The Castro Theatre sign has looked rather bleak for at least 20 years because I have been here that long, and to me, it has always been blah," said McHugh.

The new sign alone, will lure visitors, said McHugh.

"Now it is a vibrant, red sign. It announces the neighborhood," he said. "It doesn't blend in. It is kind of in your face."

Steve Adams, president of the area's merchant group, said the sign is an even bigger draw for photo-snapping tourists than the humongous rainbow flag at the corner of Castro and Market streets.

"People take pictures in front of that sign. They don't take pictures of themselves with the flag," he said. "That sign has been in disarray for years so just having that working properly is going to be great."

The movie has already brought international attention to the neighborhood, as media flock to the Castro to report on the filming. Gay bloggers are also boosting interest with near daily posts about the movie on their Web sites.

"I did an interview with the local NBC station, and my brother in Washington, D.C. saw it on his NBC station. The affiliates around the country are picking up on it," said Adams.

From the windows of his second floor offices overlooking Castro Street, McHugh has been able to observe the movie being filmed below. He said traffic to the neighborhood, despite the wet weather in recent weeks, has already increased.

"The Castro is already crowded. There are hundreds of people watching. They are not shopping; they are watching," said McHugh. "If they are coming during their lunch hour, they are probably more likely to eat lunch here. It is impacting the neighborhood that way."

Adams is hoping people's interest in visiting the Castro will only increase when the film is released.

"Once it is done and they do show the movie, I hope that people will come see the Castro and see that big Castro Theatre sign and will want to come here to shop, eat and drink," he said.

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