Immigrant filmmaker makes Petaluma his own mini-Hollywood

- The movie "American Graffiti" was not only a Hollywood blockbuster and Oscar-nominated motion picture in 1974, it also put the city of Petaluma on the filmmaking map.

Now, an Iranian immigrant is keeping that movie spirit alive today in the town he once called home.
"I just think the people here are so awesome," said Ali Afshar, who now runs ESX Entertainment, a film production company based on the Warner Brothers movie lot in Burbank.

"All of my friends and family who have helped have just been off the charts,” he said. “I just can't thank them enough."

Afshar was born in Iran but his family fled the country during the Iranian Revolution and eventually settled in Petaluma.

He's now shooting his seventh film in his former hometown for his entertainment company funded by Lucas Oil of Indianapolis.

As Afshar describes it, oil company founder Forrest Lucas wants to make "family-oriented movies that may cause a tear but leave you with a smile."

Sharon Stone and Jon Voight are among the stars he's brought to work here.

His latest movie is a sequel to a film based on Afshar's wrestling days at Petaluma's Casa Grande High School. He was so successful pinning his opponents he earned the nickname "The Wizard," which became the name of the first movie. The star of that film, George Kosturos, was back in Petaluma for part two.
"We kind of like become hometown kids hanging out. All of the extras are really cool so we end up hanging out with them," he told KTVU.

Christina Moore is a Hollywood veteran, appearing in "90210" and "MADtv". She's also a producer and has worked with Afshar on several films here.

"You kind of get the best of both worlds because we do a lot of stuff that's kind of rural and dogs and horses and race cars all that but then you can also be urban," she said.

In fact, Petaluma has gotten so much positive buzz in the industry there are some crew members who come on their own, such as make-up artist Kristy Strate from New York City.

"I pay my own way to come out here because I want to make movies, Ali's a great person,” Strate said. “Go Petaluma!"

That's a sentiment echoed by Texas native and long time actor, Sean Patrick Flanery, who's also in Afshar's Petaluma film.

"It's like a little Norman Rockwell town with farms. To be honest, I mean I'm ready to buy a house out here," Flanery said.

Afshar estimates his seven movies filmed here have pumped at least $20 million into the local economy. That means extra work for locals like Rich Gustafson, who runs Rich's Auto Body in Petaluma and has been putting in extra long days.

"Very tiring," he told KTVU as he stood by the film set. "It's a fun thing though."

The production has turned into something of a Northern California filmmaker's convention.

"I've never met so many people on one set who are from Northern California," said director Shaun Piccinino. He's from Chico and is familiar with the Bay Area. He says he's ready to come back and make more movies here.  "Everything is about respecting the community, locations, the people. So it's been a wonderful experience and I really would like to shoot here again."

George Lucas may have started the filmmaking trend in Petaluma with "American Graffiti", but it continues beyond Afshar's work to a Petaluma native named Kevin Tsujihara.

"One of the biggest reasons are offices are actually at Warner Brothers now is the president and CEO of Warner Brothers is actually born and raised in Petaluma," he said of Tsujihara.

"American Wrestler: The Sequel" is wrapping up production now.

Afshar says he'll be back to Petaluma in a couple of months to begin production on his next film, with another to follow shortly after that.

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