Richard Chan, president of Aero Mock-Ups Inc., was dressing a jetliner interior movie set Wednesday for this weekend's Showbiz Expo when Boeing unveiled its new 717--a sign that he will quickly need to come up with new sets for producers who want to shoot scenes in the next-generation commuter plane.
For Chan, this was a been-there, done-that situation.
"The basic idea is to get the seating configuration, and the 717 is the same as the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 and MD-90," Chan said. "There's some difference in the overhead bins, but it's so slight that the average viewer probably wouldn't recognize it."
The London-born Chan, 40, knows the appearance of every plane inside out. He is marking his 10th year of supplying bits and pieces of aircraft for Hollywood with his first booth in Variety's Showbiz Expo trade show for industry production professionals this weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Chan's firm is among the thousands of small businesses that thrive in odd niches of the entertainment industry.
Aero Mock-Ups, which has seven employees and is based in a North Hollywood warehouse, recorded sales of $760,000 last year by providing production designers and art directors with commercial airline and corporate aircraft interiors--cabins, galleys, cockpits and even luxurious corporate-jet living rooms.
Aero's forte, the firm's clients report, is quickly delivering authentic and fully dressed sets directly to the sound stages. Fees range from $300 a day for a row of seats and a window to $50,000 or more a week for a whole plane.
The authenticity pays off in such jobs as a recent spot ordered by CBS to promote the prime-time sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond." In the spot, to be shown on American Airlines' in-flight entertainment service, series star Ray Romano performs a routine that sends up the standard pre-takeoff safety presentation.
"He ends by showing how the seat cushions can be used as whoopee cushions," said Jack Parmeter, CBS vice president of advertising and promotion.
Chan pointed out that the seat cushions were genuine, as was every item normally used as set dressing, including headsets and bags of peanuts. Chan learned the nuts and bolts of airliners by working for a decade in the aircraft salvage and used-parts business before the aerospace industry collapse of the late 1980s.
"I had all these parts around and had to figure out what to do with them," Chan said.
Among them was a cabin section that had been used for sales demonstrations by a manufacturer of overhead-compartment conversion kits that were used in modernizing older 747s. Chan set up the cabin section on a mobile platform and began calling Hollywood production companies. In December 1988, the piece appeared in an episode of "Married With Children," and Chan's new career was off the ground.
Mobile aircraft mock-ups are appreciated in the entertainment industry, where "producers who try shooting on a real plane only do it once," Chan said.
Chan has shipped sets across the country overnight. He supplied a set within 24 hours for a re-shoot for the 1997 MGM production "Turbulence." In that film, Ray Liotta's character meets his demise on an Aero Mock-Up set.
One of Chan's ongoing customers is ABC-TV's "General Hospital," which owns a multiple-piece set that Chan sold them and that he prepares for taping.
Chan knows aircraft sets the way a good agent knows Hollywood actors and can trace their lineage from movie to movie.
As for future generations of planes, Aero Mock-Ups is ahead of the curve.
"We're ready for the Airbus, the mega-jumbo that will carry 800 passengers," Chan said. "It won't be delivered until 2002, but we are all ready to do that mock-up."
Showbiz Expo is expected to draw 20,000 attendees to the L.A. Convention Center through Sunday, said John Lewinski, vice president and manager of the trade show.