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Back Lot in L.A.'s Back Yard

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If more local scenes seem to be showing up on television and movie screens lately, it’s not an optical illusion. The San Fernando Valley’s share of on-location filming has increased about 5% over the last five years, to about one-fifth of the work being done in the Los Angeles area today.

According to a survey of a dozen location managers--people who scout streets and buildings for the movie industry--reasons for this increase include the area’s chameleon-like looks, lower daily production costs, cooperative residents and the fact that the area has not been overexposed, like other parts of the city.

“There’s more here than there once was. People are definitely rediscovering the Valley,” said Geoffrey Ryan, a location manager who has been in the business for 15 years. On any given day, as many as 10 film crews can be seen on Valley streets.

Dee Stanley of Wheeler Location Services, one of a number of firms that files on-location shooting permits for motion picture companies, said she has noticed a steady increase in the number of Valley permits since the writers’ strike ended in August.

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Stanley, like others in her business, has heard grumblings about the difficulty of working downtown.

“The cooperation here is first-rate; the school administration couldn’t be more helpful,” Ryan said. He transformed a Van Nuys High School into one in Merced for “I Know My First Name Is Steven,” a TV movie in production for Lorimar.

Ryan has transformed restaurants on Ventura Boulevard into ones in Dallas, and the Sepulveda Basin into a helicopter airfield outside New York City for “Escape From New York.” He made the broadcast headquarters for the futuristic TV series “Max Headroom” out of the Warner Center Marriott Hotel.

“We’re getting beaten to death in this town,” said Ryan, who like his peers, wants to see as much movie production as possible stay in Los Angeles, “but we get beat up less out in the Valley than downtown.”

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To location managers, “beat up” means uncooperative residents and expensive location costs. Since the cost of a shooting permit, which can be issued for various amounts of time, is the same one-time rate of $115, it is other expenses--such as parking and making deals with homeowners for use of their property--that have many production companies considering Valley sites whenever applicable.

Industrial settings in space-precious downtown Los Angeles and surrounding areas, production people say, can hover around $3,500 per day, with an additional $3,000 a day in parking lot rentals for crew cars and equipment storage. A similar setting in North Hollywood might go for $1,500, with $200 for parking, which is sometimes tossed in free.

Lower Fees

To shoot “I Know My First Name is Steven” at Van Nuys High School, the production company paid the mandatory $1,000 fee to the L.A. Unified School District, then voluntarily contributed $750 per shooting day to the school’s student body. The crew’s vehicles were parked across the street in a church parking lot for $250 per day. Ryan said he would have had to pay at least $2,500 a day for the same parking downtown.

“They have a valid reason to charge what they do,” Ryan said, citing the congestion and increased demand for usable space downtown, “but it’s less expensive out here. Down there, everybody’s got their hand out.”

“Ten years ago you’d go up to some guy’s home in Beverly Hills or Hancock Park, say you were going to show up tomorrow, and give him a couple hundred bucks,” said Brian Brosnan, a location manager for 10 years. “But now everyone’s so film-savvy, it’s not a couple hundred dollars, it’s $5,000.” In the hills of Encino, Brosnan said, the going rate for using an expensive home in a scene might be about $1,200.

“If I could go to a homeowner that has never had filming done before and make a much better deal than going into Beverly Hills, I’m a hero with the producer,” Brosnan said. “And if the production designer is happy with the look, great.”

Location manager Kristin Dewey, who once made Van Nuys High School look like an Eastern seaboard prep school for an unsold TV pilot, also likes to use San Fernando’s Whiteman Airport when the script calls for a small airstrip in rural America.

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Dewey, who has been at her job for four years, is always looking for a new street to film on. “There are houses and neighborhoods that have never had a film crew on them,” she said, pointing out stately new homes in Northridge, Chatsworth and Bell Canyon that she could use rather than going back to Hancock Park.

Dewey, like Ryan, cited cooperation as another reason for the Valley’s popularity. “The people are much more apt to be enthusiastic about the shooting,” she said, “there’s more room for your equipment, and you don’t have to pay $3,000 just to park your crew and trucks.”

“There is so much more that can be done here,” said Ricky Frazier, a movie location manager for 11 years, comparing the area to other parts of Los Angeles. “On film, this isn’t just the San Fernando Valley, it can be anywhere.”

Most location managers say the Valley profits by the overexposure of downtown, Hancock Park, Hollywood, Pasadena and South Pasadena. Others also appreciate the reception they receive here.

North and South

Ricky Frazier’s search is typical. When looking for an upstate New York farm scene for “Guts and Glory, the Oliver North Story,” a miniseries due to air in May, he found it in Chatsworth. When he needed a home to match one at Camp Lejeune, N.C., a suitable substitute was found in Studio City. Another house in the area masqueraded as one near Washington.

And since the viewing audience can get tired of seeing palm trees in every show, “anywhere” is important to budget-conscious film makers. Location manager Gary Dorf said there is an ever-present demand for generic locations that are “well-groomed but not ostentatious homes and office suites that are accessible and logistically workable. Certain areas of the Valley fill that bill.”

But most of the location managers felt on-location shooting anywhere, whether it be in the Valley or other parts of Los Angeles, has become a more difficult proposition over the last few years.

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“Everyone is more sophisticated,” said Ryan. “There’s no location manager who is going to explain that we’re not going to have any impact on daily life. People are too smart. But they’re much easier to deal with in the Valley then downtown, no comparison.”


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