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Movie Houses : Renting Your Home for a Film Shoot Is Lucrative, but Has Its Drawbacks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

NBC got an Emmy for its “Drug Wars: The Camarena Story.”

The owner of a $5-million Malibu home used as a set for the miniseries got a king-size headache during the five days that the “Drug Wars” were fought in her house.

The script called for police and U.S. agents to storm a Costa Rican villa where a drug lord was hiding out. The Malibu house played the villa but suffered in the role.

“They removed my patio doors, but an explosion blew out the glass on my other doors . . . a stainless steel door handle flew 30 feet, and they burned 50 holes in my living room rug,” the homeowner complained.

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Such can be the risks when you put your house in pictures.

An average of 38 film productions shoot on Los Angeles’ streets every working day, more than in any other city in the world, said Melissa Higgins, acting director of the California Film Commission.

An estimated five to 10 of the daily shoots are in private homes, which range from a 98-year-old Cape Cod cottage in Santa Monica to a nearly new, 40,000-square-foot mansion in Beverly Hills.

Files on houses are kept by about a dozen location agencies and the Film Commission, which lists 2,200 locations in a handbook and keeps about 130,000 location photographs in its lending library, at no charge to the property owners.

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Location agencies charge homeowners from 10% to 40% of the shooting fee, which the agencies help the homeowners negotiate with the production companies.

Many homes command $2,000 to $3,000 a day as locations, and the rates have been known to climb as high as $25,000 a day.

“The highest I ever got paid was $10,500 for a day of filming, but $5,000 to $6,000 is normal for a 14-hour day at my size house,” said the woman who owns the 7,000-square-foot mansion where “Drug Wars” was shot.

“I know people who make their mortgage payments just from what they make on movie shoots,” said Eddie Warmack, who scouts locations for Lacy Los Angeles, a TV commercial and music video production company.

While it might seem lucrative and glamorous to use your home for a TV or movie location, it also can have drawbacks, as the Malibu homeowner found out.

“Traditionally, there is no eating, drinking or smoking on a set unless they’re part of a scene, but I walked in, and a starlet was taking a break and smoking in my kitchen. I took the cigarette out of her mouth and threw the butt into my garbage disposal,” she recalled.

“Hey, I didn’t care who she was. Nobody had smoked in any of my homes in 13 years!

“The director also broke the rules by having cappuccino upstairs while shooting. Somebody bumped his arm and I got stains in my carpet.

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“Then someone on the crew didn’t like a robe they were using on the set, so they took my husband’s out of our closet.”

She was upset, she admits, but she’s philosophical about it.

“I learned a lot from that (‘Camarena’) show,” she said. “I worked eight months on having the filming in my house, and by the time it was done, I made money on it.”

What she learned has come in handy for other shoots. “I tightened up my contract (with the companies),” she said, “and I now have keyed deadbolts on my studio, office, bedroom and closet doors.”

Her house has been used--without incident--for about two dozen movie or TV productions, including the NBC series “Hunter,” starring Fred Dryer, said the woman, who asked for anonymity.

“I’m leery about using my name because it might cost me future business. If a film company thinks a property has been used a lot, they shy away from it.” But that doesn’t happen often, location companies say.

There’s another reason for anonymity.

“I want to keep a low profile because my neighbors get mad whenever they hear about all the filming we do,” said a Pasadena man, whose 1920s home is commonly known as “The Dynasty house” for the TV series in which it appeared.

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The same houses are often used repeatedly, not only because they look distinctive, but also because they can appear to be anywhere in the United States.

“It might be Spanish style, but able to be made to look like it fits in New England with a change of a light fixture, for example,” said producer Ken Wales, who often scouts locations.

Driving by the Santa Monica house used in the original “Gidget” film with Sandra Dee in 1959, Wales said, “Now that’s America. Know what I mean? It’s a house that makes people feel warm. And it could be here, on the East Coast or wherever. The house still gets used quite a bit.

“But look at the street and all those palm trees along it. Palm trees are a constant problem in filming.” The problem is that palm trees and swimming pools label a location as being in California, he explained.

On an adjacent street with no palms, he pointed out another house where, he said, “there are film trucks all the time, because it’s in a pretty good place, so filming doesn’t upset the neighbors. There’s a canyon on one side, a busy street on another, and there is plenty of parking.”

Parking is a big concern to movie companies. By Wales’ estimate, there can be five to 10 big trucks, including trailers for the stars and trucks for catering, grip equipment, lighting and cameras, at the scene of a location shoot.

When these vehicles are parked on city streets, they often bother the neighbors.

“I have one neighbor who doesn’t want any filming around him at any time,” said Judy Reiling, whose 1930s, 8,000-square-foot Colonial-style house was used for the movie “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

“I never film for more than two days at a time, and we never park even a motorcycle near his house,” Reiling said of her neighbor, “but he comes out and complains every time.”

Her house was used as a set for last fall’s NBC miniseries based on Jackie Collins’ novel “Lucky” and for the weekly TV shows “Murder She Wrote,” “Matlock,” “Highway to Heaven” and “Scarecrow and Mrs. King.”

Reiling hides as much of the movie-making equipment as possible on her two-acre property, “and we don’t do night shoots,” she said.

“I wouldn’t recommend all-night filming,” said Sherry Weber, whose 15,000-square-foot Chatsworth home has been used for such TV shows as “Jake and the Fat Man,” “Murder She Wrote,” “Simon and Simon” and the 1989 NBC movie “Original Sin,” starring Charlton Heston and Ann Jillian.

Last fall, Weber had an all-night shoot in her house for the first time. “But I wouldn’t do it again,” she said. “The crew had very large lights, which they kept on until 3 in the morning.” Weber’s neighbors were bothered, despite the fact that they were paid for their trouble, something film companies often do.

And it’s not just the neighbors who get paid during location shoots.

“There’s a funny subculture with gardeners around here,” said Stephanie Jonas of Hancock Park, whose 6,000-square-foot, white clapboard house has been used for commercials for McDonald’s, Kellogg’s cereals, Coldwell Banker and Tylenol.

“The gardeners use their blowers and mowers as soon as anyone starts filming. So now, film people carry extra cash or checks for the gardeners and ask them to go away. One gardener turned off his blower because he got $800. That’s not uncommon.”

But the neighbors don’t always get paid, and that can lead to riled feelings.

Andrew Deutsch, who rented his 2-year-old, 40,000-square-foot Beverly Hills home for Mel Brooks’ upcoming movie “Life Stinks,” said some of his neighbors were jealous, at first, simply because his residence was used instead of theirs.

“One neighbor complained to the movie company, but they didn’t pay her anything, and everything went very well anyway,” he said.

“There are always people who will gripe because they are jealous and angry that their houses aren’t used,” said a woman whose home in Fremont Place, a gated Mid-Wilshire community, was used in the movie “War of the Roses.”

Fremont Place gets $1,000 a day from every shoot for repairing the streets and lighting, according to one homeowner, “so everybody benefits.”

Still, a handful of the 72 homeowners have voiced opposition to filming, “so we try not to do it often . . . 10 days (a year) at most,” said the resident, whose English-style brick house has appeared on “L.A. Law” and was the late John Houseman’s home in the TV series “The Paper Chase.”

“The ‘Dynasty’ house in Pasadena, which gets about $6,000 a day for a shoot, is restricted (by the city) to only so many days a year because of complaints from the neighbors about overuse,” said Gene Carrier of Legend Locations.

Lana Selmis heard complaints from her neighbors when her early 1920s-era, 4,200-square-foot traditional home in Hancock Park was used for “Fine Things,” an NBC movie based on a Danielle Steel novel, which aired in October.

Selmis, her husband and two small children had to relocate for 3 1/2 weeks during the shoot.

“We were put up with a minimum of inconvenience next door because the family there went away,” she said. “So that was fun because we could watch (the shoot) from where we were staying, but it upset the neighborhood--14 families on either side of the block, with the crews arriving early in the morning and staying late at night.

“One man, a genuinely sweet person, told me that he looks at his home as a private place where he can get away from the rush and traffic. He said he wouldn’t object to one or two days of filming, but two or three weeks was just too much.”

“I live in ‘Mogul Land,’ with a lot of producers, directors and celebrities,” said Steve Reissman of Holmby Hills, “and interestingly enough, they are the worst about filming in the neighborhood.

“Of course, you also have to be prepared to give up your privacy. I had to move into a hotel for two weeks when they were doing (the TV movie) ‘Columbo.’ ”

A bigger worry to Reissman is, however, the damage that film crews can do.

It cost a production company about $8,000 to return his 2-year-old, 14,000-square-foot Mediterranean villa to its original condition after “Columbo” was filmed there, he said.

“They took pretty good care of the house, but they nicked the walls, and in my house the walls are glazed, so anytime one gets nicked, the whole wall has to be painted,” he explained.

Because of the size of his house, even the general upkeep is expensive, he noted, but Reissman has done well financially on filming, anyway. He gets $10,000 a day for a shoot.

“I took in close to $200,000 last year,” he said, “but I had to pay taxes on it, because I allowed filming for more than 14 days.”

(Although there may be exceptions, the federal tax code allows a residence to be rented for up to two weeks a year without the rent being included in a taxpayer’s gross income.)

Warmack, who scouts locations, has heard horror stories about film companies damaging houses. “But, usually, there’s a pretty sizable (damage) deposit when a company rents a house, and most companies don’t want to lose the deposit, which could be $5,000 or more for a one-day shoot,” he said.

Some homeowners demand that somebody represent them at their houses when any filming is done there.

“That’s one thing I insist on,” Reissman said. “A person from the location company must be there all the time to see if anything will need to be repaired.”

Aaron Speiser and his wife, Kristy, also made sure that they were represented at their home during the four days that a film crew was there for the upcoming Paramount film “Talent for the Game,” starring Edward James Olmos.

Billy Warren King’s Hancock Park house was used for the movie “Parenthood,” but she has only happy memories of the experience.

“It was easy,” she said, “and it was fun to meet Ron Howard and Ed Begley Jr., people who I could tell, ‘I really enjoy your work.’ ”

Guide to Getting Home in Movies

“Your Property in a Starring Role,” a booklet for anyone interested in renting their property to the film industry as a location, is available from the California Film Commission at no charge.

The booklet discusses what owners should charge, what kind of insurance they should get and how they should monitor filming. A sample contract and insurance form is included.

Copies may be obtained from the Commission at 6922 Hollywood Blvd., Suite 600, Hollywood 90028, (213) 736-2465.


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