On Location: ISS prop house going great guns in Hollywood
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On a shelf in his Sunland office, Gregg Bilson Jr. displays one of his proudest props: a Nambu semiautomatic pistol that a Japanese soldier used for a suicide scene in “Flags of Our Fathers.”
The weapon was among nearly 600 guns that Bilson’s company, Independent Studio Services, shipped to Iceland for the 2006 Clint Eastwood World War II movie.
One of the Southland’s largest prop houses is going great guns in Hollywood. Over the last decade, Bilson’s family-run operation has emerged as one of the largest suppliers of arms to the movie and television industries, building a $20-million-a-year business by offering a one-stop shop for props, especially the firing kind.
ISS operates out of a 150,000-square-foot warehouse and has more than 1 million props, including 15,000 firearms such as antique flintlock rifles, Western Colts and Japanese World War II machine guns. It also has bazookas, rocket launchers and even an M1 Abrams tank that is stored on a seven-acre lot in Lancaster.
The company, which employs 100 people, rents out real weapons that have been designed to fire blanks, as well as rubber weapons and replicas.
‘We provide everything from crossbows to rocket launchers and all points in between,’ Bilson said. ‘There is nothing we can’t supply. And if we don’t have it in stock, we can make it.’
For more than three decades, the northern L.A. County business has been supplying guns, military gear and uniforms to various locally produced television crime dramas, including ‘CSI’ and ‘Southland,’ and gun-heavy action and war movies, among them ‘The Town,’ ‘G.I. Joe’ and ‘Gangster Squad,’ the Warner Bros. period drama about the crime-fighting unit of the Los Angeles Police Department currently filming in L.A.
ISS recently sent 150 Civil War reproduction rifles and other period gear to Virginia, where director Steven Spielberg is filming a movie about President Lincoln. The picture, in which Daniel Day Lewis portrays the 16th president, is scheduled to hit theaters next year.
The company is now preparing an order of Western guns and other props for Walt Disney Studios’ ‘The Lone Ranger,’ the big-budget Johnny Depp western that will shoot next year in New Mexico.
Like other local prop houses, ISS has been squeezed by runaway production. Sales have fallen about 40% in the last decade as film work has migrated to other states, Bilson said.
But the company, which generates as much half a million dollars in sales from a single big movie, has survived by following the money. While maintaining its base in California, ISS has opened offices in several other states popular for filming, including Louisiana, Georgia and Michigan, and also is scouting locations in Britain.
Bilson’s father, Gregg, founded the prop house in 1977, initially operating out of his garage in Culver City before moving into an old Lockheed hangar in Sun Valley.
Gregg Bilson Jr., a 47-year-old Los Angeles native, worked for several years as prop master on TV shows like ‘NYPD Blue’ before taking over the family business 16 years ago and moving the operation to Sunland. Bilson, whose wife, Angie, also works at the prop house, expanded ISS by acquiring several smaller prop houses. He also routinely visits trade shows to round out his arsenal.
“We can supply a couple of hundred troops of virtually every war ever fought,’ he said.
Weapons are stored in separate rooms by category -- one for war guns, another for FBI and police weapons, and a third for pistols and rifles from the Old West. ISS employs several engineers and machinists, some of them veterans, who retrofit the weapons to fire blanks and test them for safety. They also build custom-made arms such as the futuristic guns used by the Marines in ‘Avatar’ and laser weapons in the upcoming ‘Men in Black 3.’
Bilson says the arms and military gear account for about a quarter of annual revenue. ISS also rents props as varied as jewelry and sporting equipment and has departments for printing graphics and for expendable items such as fake blood and herbal smoke used to simulate marijuana.
Beyond high shipping costs, Bilson has to contend with competition from other large prop houses based in L.A. as well as time-consuming paperwork required by multiple city, state and federal agencies regulating the transport of firearms.
Still, Hollywood’s steady appetite for guns has kept ISS busy. On Monday, prop master Scott Bauer stopped by the gun room to return a high-tech sniper rifle and other props used in a recent episode of the NBC drama ‘Chuck.’ ‘It’s a great place,’ Bauer said. ‘It’s all about the details and they do their research.’
-- Richard Verrier
Where the cameras roll
Sample of neighborhoods with permitted TV, film and commercial shoots scheduled this week. Permits are subject to last-minute changes. Sources: FilmL.A. Inc., cities of Beverly Hills, Santa Clarita and Pasadena. Thomas Suh Lauder / Los Angeles Times