Downtown streets were closed, a Christmas tree adorned the Petaluma Museum and Library, and there were many calls for “Quiet on the set!” Ali Afshar’s hometown filmmaker is making yet another holiday hit, this time with a cryptic twist.
From American Graffiti to Lolita to Cheaper by the Dozen, our historic city has been featured in films for decades.
Being a popular location for the film industry, there is a lot of fun and excitement for the locals, not to mention the occasional role as extras. In addition to the thrill, there is another important advantage – the economic benefit.
The film industry has brought significant income to the area over the past five years. In 2017 Sonoma County Film Office contributed to the issuance of 84 permits for 184 filming days, resulting in an economic impact of $4.81 million. The film sector brought in $134 million in 2019; 1,081 employees and $69.5 million in added value.
Marie McCusker, chief executive of the Petaluma Downtown Association, said she was delighted to have filmmaking back in the city after two years of the pandemic. “Petaluma was a popular filming location because of its allure, alleyways, rivers and the like,” she said.
McCusker said the city benefits from the industry because film crews often stay at Petaluma hotels and dine at local restaurants.
The Petaluma City Center Association promotes filming in the bustling business district, but the city decides where film production is allowed.
“If they need to negotiate with businesses, we’re trying to make sure the video footage doesn’t negatively impact merchants,” McCusker said. “If you have a decent sized team in town, the economic impact can be quite good, especially if it’s the middle of the week.”
Shooting in the city center on weekends is usually prohibited in order to preserve the vibrant character of the city.
Such was the case with the cast and crew of the new film A Christmas Mystery, which was filmed in Petaluma during the week of June 13th. The action takes place on vacation in Oregon, but filming in June takes place in California. Cast: Beau Bridges (The Fabulous Baker Boys), Oscar Nunez (The Office), Violet McGraw (Black Widow) and many more.
Producers Afshar and Ava Rettke are familiar with filming in the city. Growing up in Petaluma, Afshar has connections with the locals, including his ranch, which he bought as a child and turned into a small studio.
The film’s star, 11-year-old McGraw, also has ties to our city. Her mother, Jackie McGraw, grew up in the city and went to Casa Grande High School where she met Afshar.
The two reunited after they ran into each other at a film festival. Coincidentally, all of Jackie’s children are actors, and as a producer, Afshar was the perfect fit for Violet. The character Violet, aptly named Violet in The Christmas Secret, was written especially for her.
Jackie was thrilled that her daughter was the star of a film set in her hometown. “I haven’t been back in such a long time and it was like a crazy full circle moment,” Jackie said.
The film is the last of three Warner Bros. Christmas films. and HBO Max filmed in Petaluma. Afshar and Rettke have done quite a bit of production in the area – they recently finished Holiday Harmony with Brooke Shields in April.
Rettke landed her first job straight out of college as an assistant to Afshar at Warner Bros. and is now producing his own projects. She grew up in Woodside, California and then moved to Los Angeles to work in the industry.
The young producer’s family still lives in the Bay Area, so she shares the local connections that Afshar and McGraw have. While based in Los Angeles, Rettke witnessed the industry’s lack of expansion into other areas.
“I grew up here, there is nothing here that would be connected with the industry,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Oh, I should go to LA, that’s where I should go.’ The two producers bring awareness and accessibility to the arts in Petaluma and Northern California.
“We have been working on local casting, taking this industry to places other than a very select few. Then they will see the opportunities they will have when they grow up,” she said. “Potential on a more intimate basis”.
Afshar and Retkke often choose Petaluma as the basis for their productions for several reasons. Bringing in stars like Dennis Quaid, Sharon Stone and Ludacris is good for the city. “They will go home, talk to all their agents, colleagues and contractors and say, ‘Petaluma is so much fun!’” he said. “Many people will also learn about Petaluma.”
Afshar said the current film is their 18th production filmed in Petaluma, resulting in millions of dollars of economic development for the city every time they visit. The cast and crew keep the economy going with gas, food, entertainment, housing, and more. They also inform the city and small businesses.
“Our favorite restaurants [are] Cucina Paradiso with Dennis or Central Market with Tony. We bring people, they take pictures and put them online, it’s like an advertisement that you can’t buy,” Afshar said. “You can’t just have Ludacris come to your restaurant or Brooke Shields come and pose with you.”
Petaluma, we must pay tribute, has something to offer filmmakers. Proximity to the ocean, the ability of San Francisco and Petaluma to turn into any city in the United States make it an ideal location for filming Afshar’s films.
Retka also likes the city’s charm, farmland, brick alleys and vineyards. “Petaluma is very diverse for such a small town. It already feels like you’re on a film set when you’re downtown,” she said.
Afshar and Rettke have new projects, including a series called “Casa Grande” filmed in Petaluma. The team will continue to support the city’s economy and share what it has to offer with Hollywood and the rest of the world.
Emma Molloy is an intern at Argus-Courier. She can be contacted at [email protected]