An Alaska Airlines commercial was shot on three Whidbey Island locations, including next to the Coupeville High School gym in late June. The building’s brick wall was supposed to resemble a fire department. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Island County tourism office looks to streamline film permit process

Sherrye Wyatt estimates that at least a dozen major film productions have taken place on Whidbey and Camano islands over the past three years.

From an episode of HGTV’s “House Hunters” to the History Channel’s “American Pickers,” Island County has attracted a variety of TV shows and commercials in recent years, translating to an economic impact of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The filming generates money and excitement to the county, but also the occasional headaches when it comes to navigating multiple permits.

Wyatt, public relations and marketing manager for Whidbey Camano Islands Tourism, is trying to streamline that process to make the islands more film-friendly for producers and to keep municipalities better informed about the scope of projects.

Wyatt shared her vision with the Island County Council of Governments in Coupeville Nov. 23.

The council is made up of mayors of Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley and elected officials with Island County and the port districts of Coupeville and South Whidbey.

Wyatt would like community leaders to agree on a coordinated film permitting process involving a master application that would be downloaded by filmmakers from the Whidbey Camano Islands Tourism website.

Wyatt said she found that Langley was the only municipality on Whidbey that had a film permit process in place, while Coupeville and Oak Harbor only had special event permits.

“Rather than have a different form for each town and unincorporated Island County, we set out to streamline the process,” Wyatt wrote in an email. “The master application includes film-specific questions needed for reviewing a request. These are questions which currently are not present on special events permits. Each town and the county will collect any required fees and process the request themselves.”

Wyatt placed a draft of the universal agreement before the council to examine, hoping the plan could “go live” by the spring.

Aside from the application, the county’s tourism website also will feature a searchable set of film locations, a comprehensive list of guidelines for filming within the county, an interactive map and links to other jurisdictions.

The idea of a more coordinated and efficient approach to managing film projects in the county came after the filming of an Alaska Airlines commercial in late June, when the Town of Coupeville got little notice about the shoot there.

“It reminded us that we need to do a better job,” Wyatt said.

Wyatt worked with filmmaker Laura Hilton, a South Whidbey High School graduate, over the summer on plans to make Whidbey and Camano more film-friendly by making the process of securing locations more seamless and at the same time keep communities better informed.

“We want it to be more professional,” Wyatt said. “We want to be more responsive, organized and connected and just be really aware of what our procedure is and make sure we’re communicating with each other when there is filming happening. Because very rarely does someone go to one place and film. They’re often wandering throughout the county.”

The council spoke favorably of working together to make the permitting process a coordinated effort.

“My attitude is I think it would be pretty exciting if we did see an opportunity in the city,” Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns said. “We’d want to work to make it happen with them the best we could.”

Severns said he still runs into people who remember when the 1989 feature film “The War of the Roses” brought actors Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito and Kathleen Turner to Whidbey restaurants.

The island’s brush with Hollywood fame is perhaps best tied to the 1998 film, “Practical Magic,” which caused a stir in Coupeville with Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman and Goran Visnjic on location.

Much more recently, zombies came to Central Whidbey.

The final episode of this season’s Syfy cable channel series, “Z Nation” was filmed at Fort Casey State Park in September. It is scheduled to air Dec. 16.

“We want to be accommodating to a degree,” Wyatt said. “We also want to take care of our quality of life. The very reason they want to work here are things we don’t want to lose.”