Hollywood Does Remake of Old Industrial Sites

Sue Martin is an editorial assistant at The Times

The film capital of the world is moving to Vernon.

Well, not quite.

While the major studios aren't relocating lock, stock and sound stage to the meat-packing city, more and more television and film production companies are setting up their own operations in unexpected corners of Los Angeles--such as Vernon, South Gate and the Eastside.

What has drawn the film makers to such unlikely locales are millions of square feet of empty industrial space with high ceilings just begging to be made into something Hollywood-marvelous, such as, well, the sewer tunnels of New York City.

It's true. Witt-Thomas Productions, makers of CBS' cult favorite TV show "Beauty and the Beast" uses an old Vernon paper mill as its studio for the adventures of attorney Catherine Chandler and her hirsute friend Vincent, who inhabits tunnels and chambers below Manhattan.

"What made this space in Vernon so attractive was there was one chamber with 17,000 square feet totally clear and a (ceiling height) of 42 feet," said Harry Waterson, a consultant for the show.

The old building also has a cellar with 12-foot ceilings, where the producers could intertwine tunnels to create their subterranean world, he said.

"Beauty" is just one of several productions that have been filmed in deserted industrial buildings. Others are a pilot for a series based on "Alien Nation" and the movies "Robocop" and "Lethal Weapon," filmed in an empty Ford plant in Long Beach; "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai" and "Swing Shift," shot in the Firestone plant in South Gate, and the series "Cagney and Lacey," at the converted factories at the Lacy Street Production Center in Los Angeles.

And a number of production companies have turned to commercial real estate brokerage firms, such as the Seeley Co., Grubb & Ellis, KB Management and ZSI, which offer listings of available industrial space.

Such sites range from a vacant seven-story office building in downtown Los Angeles to a storage facility for perishables on the Eastside.

But besides those millions of square feet of vacant industrial space waiting to be bathed by spotlights, there are practical and financial reasons for filming outside the major studios.

"Here we're probably paying 50% less per square foot than I would be paying for a stage," Waterson said, "and in addition, my support staff is probably 10 cents on the dollar to what it would cost at a full-service production facility at one of the major studios.

30-Mile Limit

". . . (And) we're not at the mercy of other companies on a lot (at a major studio), which are waiting in line for services. We're our own master here," he said.

Another financial consideration favoring the reclamation of empty industrial buildings is the movie industry's 30-mile limit.

An agreement worked out between the film unions and film makers provides economic incentives for staying within a 30-mile radius of Beverly and La Cienega boulevards. As Donna Wells of the California Film Commission described it:

"If you go outside of that zone, you spend a lot of money on per-diem and travel time. So production companies try to stay in this radius."

This adds up to 6,000 permits a year to shoot in the city of Los Angeles and 2,500 in the county, not counting independent cities, which also issue hundreds of permits a year. And all this brings $5 billion in revenue to the state of California, Wells said.

Needed High Ceilings

Waterson detailed the search that Witt-Thomas undertook for "Beauty."

"We hired a location scout, and he must have looked at 30 or 40 locations, including the studios, around town.

"One of our requirements was high ceilings, especially for our permanent sets. One of the problems at looking at warehouse space was you could get huge expanses, but it would all be clear, it wouldn't be segmented into separate boxes of space."

But at the Vernon site there were two chambers of 17,000 square feet, as well as the cellar. And there is also some storage space, which is important because it allows the producers to recycle a set.

Bring Up to Code

"At Ren-Mar in Culver City (where "Beauty and the Beast" filmed its first season), when we finished something, we just threw it away because we had nowhere to put it," Waterson said.

It can be expensive to bring an empty warehouse up to building and safety codes and make it suitable for film production, as the "Beauty" producers found out.

"We put a million dollars into leasehold improvements here," Waterson said. The plumbing and fire-sprinkling system had been upgraded, but big expenses were incurred on air conditioning, electrical work and soundproofing--which can be critical when the 10 o'clock train goes by.

Nearby train tracks are just one of the problems that can work against a site as a film location. So is being under the flight patterns of an airport or being too close to a freeway.

Of course, shoots not requiring soundproofing can use such locations. Music videos and commercials can be booked into noisy places because either there's no sound being recorded or they're going to use a playback.

Location Specialist

One of the busiest warehouse-location agents is Diane Markoff, who has been scouting out-of-the-way sites for four years for clients from Los Angeles to New York who are looking for places to shoot indoor car-chase scenes, special effects and explosions.

Markoff, who once played the waitress frequently seen on the TV show "Quincy" starring Jack Klugman, found herself at loose ends once the show went off the air.

A friend who owned the vacant 26-acre Ford plant in Long Beach needed someone to help with the property, so Markoff went to work selling film companies on the plant as an ideal space for location shooting, luring the makers of "Robocop" and "Lethal Weapon."

Through her handling of the Ford plant, Markoff saw the possibilities for this kind of use of abandoned properties. "I didn't realize this business could be created when I started, but the response was tremendous," she said.

"Finding architecturally unique, soundproof property isn't easy though," she said. "Old factories and warehouses are frequently scheduled for demolition or cannot shut down their operation for filming purposes."

Some of her other properties are vacant warehouses at 49th Street and Santa Fe Avenue and at 48th and Alameda streets, and the Firestone plant in South Gate. She also represents the Vernon paper mill where "Beauty" is filmed.

One of the original warehouse/studios in Los Angeles is the Lacy Street Production Center at 2630 Lacy St., where "Cagney and Lacey" was filmed for six years.

The buildings' co-owner, Don Randles, explained how he and his partner, Jim Knight, got into the movie-location business with their abandoned factories.

"The 'Cagney and Lacey' people were looking for a building that looked like New York," he said, "and then, pretty soon, they decided we could do a lot of the work. They spent a couple of months fixing up three buildings.

Fell Into Business

"We now rent the space by the day or week or whatever. . . . Roughly, we charge about $3,000 a day. We just had Fox in here doing a TV pilot based on 'Alien Nation' (a Fox feature release last year)."

Another out-of-the-way production location is the Dos Carlos Stages at 1360 E. 6th St., east of downtown Los Angeles, run by Charles Shuken and his partner.

Shuken explained that he just fell into the business. A location scout looked at the former storehouse for perishables one day and said: "What you've got here, mister, are sound stages," Shuken recalled.

So he started asking friends who knew the movie industry and got on lists of places good for location shoots. "As time went by, I finally got feature film work," he said.

Shuken said many feel location shooting in empty industrial buildings is only a transitional use.

"Most real estate brokers don't view this as a business," he said, "but as an interim opportunistic use. They are typically looking for a long-term tenant."

Lori Willis of ZSI, which has several buildings downtown, agreed.

"All our buildings are on the market for sale. Until it actually closes escrow, however, we'll rent the building out.

"Usually for one floor we get about $2,500 (a day). . . . We don't take low-budget production companies because it defeats the purpose of renting them. You take a building worth $2 million, well, $500 for a rental just doesn't make it."

Affordable Location

And then there's Valencia.

At the utmost north of the 30-mile radius, a bustling film facility called Valencia Independent has been set up in an empty industrial building.

Valencia Independent President Robert Thompson moved out there because he wanted an affordable location.

"I couldn't find anything in the San Fernando Valley," he said. "I was looking in the Valley because I felt there was a growing epicenter of production in Burbank and there was no independent facility in the Valley of this nature.

"This is the cutting edge of independent production because we're near five ranches out here. We have the original raw materials needed for film production, which are outside locations and a studio for sets.

"The Santa Clarita Valley is . . . home to the (few) remaining outside/exterior places to shoot. . . . Who knows? In a few more decades, it will have moved to Bakersfield.

"We're the Target stores of the industry. We don't have delusions of grandeur. Our destiny is eventually to be bulldozed down for condos. I mean, how can you justify using all this space?"

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