When an area becomes a popular place to film it can attract two types of surges, the good, with things like an increase in tourism or, the bad, with an increase crime. Recently, there has been a lot of the later in southern California.
Over the past two years there has been a huge jump in crime targeting film crews and it’s something we all need to talk about.
At 8 am on Sunday, July 16th, 71 year-old Ed French, a well known fixture in commercial production, was scouting locations for a commercial at the Twin Peaks Overlook in San Francisco. What started out as a beautiful morning quickly turned into a nightmare. French was approached by an African American man with shoulder-length dreadlocks and a woman in her late teens. The two strangers shot French and took his camera and equipment before fleeing the area in a dark gray Honda Accord, a witness reported to police.
This has happened before. Last year, two other filmmakers were also attacked and robbed in the same location where French’s life was ended, over a camera, a camera.
On Monday night, around 10:30, another film crew was robbed at gun point in downtown Oakland. Chris Burns (pictured above), the director of photography for the project, recounted to me what happened.
After filming all day for a major YouTube content provider, Chris, along with his crew, stopped for dinner at Mountain Mike’s Pizza in Oakland. Most of the production crew had already left, leaving Chris and 4 members of the team who were getting ready to leave. While one crew member stayed inside, Chris and 3 of the other crew members (all female) walked into the parking lot, having no clue what they were about to experience. They were greeted by two African American men armed with 9mm’s. One of the men quickly forced the three women onto the ground face-down between Chris’ SUV and another car, while the other forced Chris against the wall. After frisking Chris they pushed him to the ground alongside the women. One thief held a gun to the back of the team’s heads, even cocking it to put a bullet in the chamber, while the other rattled off a list of what they wanted, the camera equipment. They new exactly what was in the van. They asked where were the cameras, the computers, the lenses, batteries, a smart slate, a monitor. Chris told them exactly where to find everything and pleaded with the men not to hurt anyone.
They told the film crew that they would shoot them. At one point Chris heard the man guarding him and the women cock the gun. He also heard a police scanner that they were using. They were told to “not look up” and, “don’t move”.
After loading the equipment the men told the shaken victims to count to a million as loud as they could. They started counting and when they reached 123, they could no longer hear their assailants. At that moment the other crew member came outside, not knowing what was going on. Chris and the women started yelling to call 911 and the group ran back into the restaurant. All of the team, the patrons and the staff hid in the back room, shut off all the lights and locked the doors, and waited until a swarm of officers arrived.
As Chris recounted the details of terrifying encounter to me, I could hear in his voice the horror and shock that is still fresh in his mind. In all, the robbers made off with over $40,000 in equipment, but the only thing that really matters is that the terrified crew was not harmed, though they will forever have the experience in the back of their minds.
Chris described the robbery as “horrible”, he said that after being in the industry for over 20 years that he has never before experienced something like this. After telling me his story, he said something that struck me, “The worst part is, this is happening all over Oakland and the Bay area. This is constantly happening.”
He listed off several other robberies that had happened to a lot of crews, including news crews, even while on air live.
I did my own research on the subject and found many reports about productions and crews being robbed. This is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. People are getting hurt and killed. It is ridiculous that groups of professionals are not able to work in safe environment while make films and series. Both the local community and the entertainment community need to come together to find a way to make a safer enviornment.
If you are filming in the Oakland/San Francisco area, please do not go out without security or a police presence. If you know anything about the robberies, please contact the proper police department.
Our thoughts and condolences go out to the family and friends of Ed French.