Negotiating With Hollywood Over Money, Image : Chinatown Cooks Up Film Deal

Times Staff Writer

Chinatown's main square may be a picturesque delight to most visitors, but it's a giant headache to production crews in Hollywood's film industry.

"We're notorious," Curtis Lee, manager of General Lee's, the largest restaurant in the square off North Broadway, said Wednesday.

In the past, when cameras rolled on location in the area, Chinese merchants have tended to turn their radios up to full volume or to start washing their windows.

It was their way of protesting the loss of business caused by the film crews' closing sections of the square.

About a year ago one coffee shop owner was arrested during shooting of a "Simon & Simon" show when water from his window washing allegedly landed on the crew's cables.

That's all changed now, Lee said, because he has been retained as a liaison between the 35 merchants in the square, the two dozen property owners who built its brightly painted arches and pagoda-like buildings and the film and television industry, which uses Chinatown about 15 times a year.

In the past, Lee said, only the property owners had any organized representation, with the result that some merchants were paid and some were not. Lee said he now will negotiate in advance of filming for all parties.

But along with the new spirit of cooperation, which some film industry representatives greeted with relief, comes another request--for "script review"--that is being greeted with some dismay.

"Asians in general and Chinese in particular have not been portrayed as good and wholesome people," said Lee, a fourth-generation Chinese-American, adding that he has seen Chinatown shown as "violent, with prostitutes and dens and secret tunnels. It reflects poorly on the community."

So last January, when the man who had always negotiated with film people for the property owners died, Lee said, he went to see the owners.

"I said let's use our leverage for permission to shoot in Chinatown," he said, to request script review. Although not asking to actually see the scripts, Lee added, "I inquire how is the community involved. Are we being depicted as notorious gangsters?"

Script review is not unknown. Film representatives said they have received requests for it from the Department of Defense, churches and often hospitals, for example, and even Pussycat Theatres requires it.

But Jim McCabe, a location manager who heads the location managers' steering committee for Teamsters Local 399, said he found the Chinatown request "strange."

"Hardly anyone shoots Chinatown for Chinatown itself," he said. "That's the beauty of it. They want it to be the Far East."

"The basic idea of giving outside people script approval in most cases is not acceptable," said Charles Weisenberg, public affairs director of the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers. "I would suspect there will be producers who . . . would say, 'we'll go someplace else.' "

So far, since the new guidelines went into effect, four film crews have asked, and been given permission, to use Chinatown's main plaza, Lee said, adding that they wanted the place essentially for "background" with no depiction of the community itself.

The Chinese merchants are considering one other request, Lee said. They want film crews to eat Chinese while in Chinatown, and leave their catering trucks at home.

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