A helicopter hovers over a small stretch of California highway. Horns blare. A car launches into the air and lands in an explosive ball of fire as people hurriedly abandon their vehicles and run for safety.

It looks like a scene straight out of a movie, and that's because it is. The cameras are rolling, capturing every action-packed moment on film in hopes of raking in millions at the box office.

From the motion picture studio's perspective, deciding where to film is integral to the success of any film. From California's perspective, it's an important source of revenue for state coffers and an opportunity to capture valuable economic data to better compete with other states for film studios' business.

A Partner Within

When a studio wants to transform a state highway typically congested with daily commuters into a movie set, the studio must get a permit from the California Film Commission (CFC), which issues permits for filming on state property.

When the CFC realized its existing permitting system was falling short of satisfactory, it turned to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to create a new system that issues permits online.

"We're a large organization with highly skilled and trained technical staff," said Suzanne Slayton, chief of Caltrans' Finance and Administration Application Systems Support Office. "The commission did not have the same type of technical expertise available to them, so they were able to get a low-cost solution that got the job done by leveraging our infrastructure using our staff."

Caltrans and the CFC are both departments under the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, and Caltrans already plays a part in the permitting process.

"We had a lot of knowledge on permitting processes," said Slayton. "We have the other half of it basically."

Any permit request regarding filming on state roadways has to be approved by Caltrans, she explained. A Caltrans liaison working in the CFC office reviews permit applications, and then sends them to Caltrans' District 7 office in Los Angeles for processing.

Detailed Efficiency

The new system from Caltrans has been in production, including the testing phase, since December 2004. From December to April, it generated 986 applications and had 250 registered users.

Because the permits generate revenue for the state, the commission tracks important economic statistics included in the permit applications, said CFC Director Amy Lemisch.

The old system asked whether the project was to be television, commercial, feature, student or still photography, but the new system asks for more.

"Within those categories, we're breaking it up into more detail," said Lemisch. "For example, television is broken up into six different categories now. We're asking for information we never asked the client for in terms of their budget range and number of people on the crew. With this information, we'll have better data on the numbers of people that are employed each year, or that are employed by certain types of production."

One of the CFC's goals for the new system is following the economic and job-related statistics of film projects on state property, such as how many people were employed by feature films, how many hours of television filming took place last year, or what the average budget was for features. This way, the CFC can keep track of the business coming to California, and the revenue and jobs that result.

Prior to the new system, statistics were available but weren't easy to collect. "They would have to go back and hand-crank through all of their paper files to generate statistics," Slayton said.

Manually inputting the statistical data into the system was also difficult. "Somebody had to do major data entry," explained Lemisch.

This process was time-consuming, and the information wasn't as detailed as it is now. Having the information from the start means a much quicker turnaround time in the approval process. Previously permit requests were faxed to the CFC and sometimes lacked necessary details, leaving unanswered questions to be cleared up by either the commission or Caltrans.

"The initial permits used to come in with requests such as, 'I want to use the Golden State Freeway in Ventura County.' Well, that's an awful lot of freeway -- we needed a little more information than that," said Slayton, adding that engineers can now more easily identify where applicants want to film and quickly decide whether it's possible. "Clearly you can't allow anybody a section of I-5 in the middle of rush hour in Los Angeles."

By changing the application content, Slayton said Caltrans employees responsible for approving applications get the information they need on the first try. "There aren't the 50 phone calls that had to happen before to clarify things," she said.

The CFC also wanted to reduce turnaround time to two or three days, and the online permit system makes that possible, which not only benefits the commission and Caltrans, but also is advantageous to applicants.

"Many times they don't have the advance notice we would like them to have," Lemisch said, noting that providing quicker turnaround helps ease people's minds.

System Technology

Caltrans built the online permit system from scratch after careful planning with the CFC.

"When you actually get a new system into practice, there can be a lot of problems with it," said Lemisch. "This was an unusual case where, when it was done, we were able to use the system right away."

The online permit system is based on Java technology and runs on an Apache Web server, said Paul Allen, project lead from Caltrans.

The system is supported by an Oracle database on the back end, which is used as a data repository. The Apache software is open source, providing cost savings without reducing quality.

"The system is developed in a high-quality, highly portable language," explained Slayton. "We came into this to put together a robust application that was pretty much bulletproof -- it's very hard to break -- and we used standard tools that the industry recognizes as the appropriate types of tools to use to develop it."

Caltrans will maintain the system for two years.

"We figured that would be the easiest way to get through the initial bumps in the road that always happen when you put up a new system," Slayton said. Caltrans will also proceed with specified additions to the system as it evolves.

Not yet in final form, the system is already generating interest from Regional Film Commission offices throughout the state, which coordinate filming on city or county property. In response, the CFC is entertaining the idea of selling the system to those interested, and fine-tuning it to meet their specific needs.

"This would certainly be a great way for the state to recoup some of the money that went into the development of the software," Lemisch noted.

Shooting Business

In addition, the state CFC would like to provide its main database as a storage center for the regional commissions that purchase the system. The hope is that in doing so, the CFC can gather statewide statistics that include not only filming on state property, but filming on city and county property as well.

"For some reason, this industry -- the entertainment industry -- is very difficult to track," Lemisch said. "Each little sector might capture certain numbers, but there's not one massive central database of exactly how many production days, how many location days, how many TV days, how many features, how many commercials, that sort of thing."

The CFC aims to provide a better service to its clients so it can generate more business for the state.

"The competition has increased exponentially over the past three years," Lemisch said. "It's intense right now. Anything we can do to make it easier for people to shoot here is a positive improvement," she said.

Film production is a very important industry in California, she explained, and collecting economic statistics while offering improved service to potential clients is key.

"We're trying to increase business. If we increase the number of productions, we increase the number of jobs. So it's important for us to be able to track what's going on from year to year."

Sherry Watkins  |  Contributing Writer