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They’re empty, but full of promise

Special to The Times

In most cities, an empty building is an eyesore, a sign of economic blight, possibly even a danger to the public. In Los Angeles and environs, however, it can be a source of capital to the owners and a boon to film producers.

Such is the case with an empty Sumitomo Bank branch in Gardena, whose vault is still, in a sense, protecting the building’s assets. Studio crews would be foolish to try to replicate on a soundstage the size, weight, mechanical intricacy and sense of impregnability of the vault door. So they come to the real thing.

“Banks are always used in films, and it’s hard to get operating banks to allow filming,” says Joseph Darrell, owner of Film Friendly Locations, which represents the former Sumitomo Bank that has welcomed crews from, among other shows, “Robbery Homicide Division” and the recently axed “Push, Nevada.” The massive vault, he says, is one of the only ones in the area open for filming.

Film Friendly Locations -- which lists everything from a downtown L.A. storefront to a castle with a moat -- is one of a small group of companies that represent properties in Southern California for use as film sets. Many remain inhabited, but for the so-called dead properties, those sitting unused, film location rent is owners’ only source of income to offset the costs of mortgages, maintenance, taxes and utilities.

Although shooting on location is hardly a novelty, using empty commercial buildings for filming does address two ongoing, hot-button issues in L.A.: land use and building preservation and keeping production from leaving town to save a buck.

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Just how much can be saved by filming in empty buildings, as opposed to renting soundstage facilities, is hard to say, because so many variables are involved, including the type of production and its budget. “Prices on the properties run in accordance with the size of the [building], the kind of use and the number of prep days,” Darrell says. “If it’s multiple shoot days and prep days, we discount it somewhat because we’re getting many days’ work.”

On average, though, a commercial building might be rented out for $2,500 to $4,000 a day for the actual shoot, and less for prep and strike days, with the production company bringing in its own electrical and lighting packages and handling the permits and transportation. That is commensurate with the cost of renting four dark, empty walls of a soundstage, but is perhaps one-third the day rate for a back-lot location and one-fifth the tab for a fully equipped stage with power, a lighting package and a crew.

Darrell -- a lifelong Angeleno and former rock musician, actor, unit production manager and photographer -- got into the location business about eight years ago as a result of trying to help out a friend with an office building in Hollywood that suffered from low occupancy.

“I figured if I could put production into this building at the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga, people would want to be around where the production is,” he says. “I started bringing production into the building and eight years later the building is full” -- except for the former bank space on the ground floor, which is still rented out for shoots.

Beyond cost considerations, the quest for the right look draws location managers and art directors to a specific location.

“Studios do not have much personality to them, and you have to go in and build,” says Peg Meehan, owner of the Silver Lake-based Unreel Locations. “Usually, people come to us because they like certain architectural features.”

For the Coen brothers film “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” a complete 1940s department store was needed for interior and exterior shots. The ideal site was found in the vacant Seeley Furniture store in Glendale, a property Meehan says she discovered almost by accident.

“I stopped by for the liquidation sale to buy some furniture, and looked around at the high ceilings and interesting architectural features,” she says. “So as I’m paying for my sofa, I said, ‘By the way, what’s happening with this building after you close?’ That’s how we got going.”

The Seeley complex -- which includes two showrooms and a brick warehouse with trussed ceilings -- has become a mini-studio in itself. In the three years since the owners moved out, the buildings have been refitted to represent a Staples store for a commercial, an auto showroom, a nightclub, even a Buddhist martial arts temple -- almost everything except a furniture store.

Likewise, the venerable Little Joe’s Restaurant in Chinatown, which has stood vacant for more than three years, has been used for everything from a hotel to a prison in a Third World country.

“Little Joe’s has things that aren’t necessarily Southern Californian,” Meehan says. “It is numerous buildings put together, and the original building was a market with a basement to keep the produce cold, a basement with 12-foot ceilings and arches that date back to the late 1880s. The bar area is dark wood, and it looks sort of Chicago or New York, so instead of flying to Chicago or New York for filming, [filmmakers] can come here and get that feel of the old bar with the red booths.”

Meehan got a taste of the location-filming business while working as operations manager for Bullock’s Wilshire and I. Magnin department stores and overseeing shoots in stores that had been closed to the public. After getting a real estate broker’s license, she started Unreel Locations in 1995 and began specializing in representing historic properties, making sure that the income earned from use of the buildings goes back into maintenance or construction.

“It is costly to maintain all those unglamorous things like the plumbing, the electrical, the earthquake reinforcement and the foundation,” she says.

Even some of the city’s bona fide architectural landmarks have been opened up for filming, and not just the familiar ones, such as Union Station or the Bradbury Building in downtown L.A. Meehan handles the Ennis Brown House, the noted Frank Lloyd Wright edifice in the foothills of Griffith Park, and the Doheny mansion in the West Adams district (not to be confused with the Beverly Hills Doheny mansion, better known as Greystone, which has been used as a film location since the 1940s). Filming in the former is limited to a minimum, Meehan says, to save wear and tear on the house and the neighbors’ nerves.

Among the most notable empty historic buildings in Los Angeles is the 90-year-old Herald Examiner building designed by Julia Morgan for William Randolph Hearst. It’s available for filming through Hollywood Locations, which despite the name specializes in commercial properties in downtown L.A. Formed in 1989 by onetime location manager Brian Brosnan and Christopher Ursitti, Hollywood Locations snapped up representation of the building after the newspaper ceased publication. (In 1999 the company came to represent the ultimate Morgan-Hearst collaboration, Hearst Castle in San Simeon.)

In addition to the empty newsrooms, the building houses sets left by previous productions -- a police station, a jail, a courtroom, even a bar. But most production designers are loath to use an unaltered set built by someone else, according to marketing director Chris Catalfamo, unless production is already on site and discovers something that can be used. Network TV shows that have filmed in the landmark building include “CSI,” “JAG” and the new “Dragnet.”

Hollywood Locations also is a partner in the Los Angeles Center Studios complex, a full-service, six-stage production facility in the former Unocal headquarters downtown. But it also represents major downtown high-rises, offering lobbies (which can go for a day rate of up to $10,000), rooftops, office suites or entire floors that have been vacated by tenants.

Fluctuating availability forces location representatives to stay on top of the market as diligently as commercial real estate agents. “You lose tenants all the time,” Catalfamo says. A case in point is the old Robinsons-May store at 7th Street between Grand and Hope, which became a frequently used filming location after the store closed.

“The ground floor had been redone about six years before it closed, so it looked fairly modern,” Catalfamo says. “It was perfect for commercials because it was empty. JCPenney loved it and they were continually filming there for weeks at a time.” The last time the production company handling the JCPenney account called to book the site, however, the building had been sold. A Rite Aid store now occupies part of the space.

Producers and location managers are well aware that’s part of the deal. “All production knows that as long as it’s available to shoot in, it’s available to shoot in,” Darrell says. “The property manager or owner is of course looking for a long-term, three- to five-year deal, and when something shows up, I’m out of it.”

Similarly, potentially long-term film rental deals can suddenly go south, as was the case with “Push, Nevada,” which found its locations but failed to scout an audience.

Although the work of location service representatives such as Darrell, Meehan and Catalfamo exists mostly in a realm of industry insiders, having a property listed as a potential film location is one of the only aspects of filmmaking open to anyone who is interested.

“In Los Angeles, it’s an opportunity that’s there,” Meehan says. “Filming is a wonderful way for property owners to get income from their property, and if it’s done correctly,” she emphasizes, “it can be a very, very good experience.”


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