Porn Shoots Get Under Their Skin

Times Staff Writer

Two weeks ago today, inside the million-dollar-plus houses on a quiet cul-de-sac in Encino, the neighborhood kids delighted in what the Easter Bunny had brought.

Then, about 10 a.m., the porn stars started showing up.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 3, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 03, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Adult movie locations: An article Sunday in Section A about the filming of adult movies in Los Angeles referred to Film L.A. as a city agency. In fact, Film L.A. Inc. is a private, nonprofit corporation that issues film permits on behalf of the city as well as other jurisdictions, such as Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Angeles National Forest.

Helaine Gesas, who has lived on Hayvenhurst Avenue for 38 years, was in her kitchen cooking Passover supper when she noticed men hauling cameras and lights into the two-story house across the street.

Her neighbor Kerry Cohen, a paralegal and mother, was on her way out to organize a charity event. As she squeezed past several large production trucks, Cohen looked in her rear-view mirror and saw “scantily clad” young women parking their cars and heading toward the same house.


As far as John R. Johnson was concerned, “that was the end of Easter Sunday.” Johnson, another neighbor, told his 9-year-old daughter to stay inside while what he described as a “prison-yard break” -- a large film crew, many of its members covered in tattoos -- entered the iron gates of the house in the 3600 block of Hayvenhurst.

Outraged, Johnson called the city seeking to shut the porn shoot down. But everything, he was told, was perfectly legal.

In any given year, about 3,900 adult films are shot in Los Angeles, according to industry estimates. As with any other shoot, those films are supposed to obtain permits from the city. But the city doesn’t restrict the content of the projects it approves.

Which means that if one of your neighbors decides, as Johnson’s did, to rent out his house for the filming of “The Alphabet” -- in which sexual acts are performed in alphabetical order by 21-year-old identical twins -- there’s not much you can do to stop him.

Many in L.A. have endured film shoots in their neighborhoods and know the infuriation of traffic congestion and sidewalks swarming with self-important production crews. But along with the hassle often comes a little cachet -- if you lived in a dump, chances are they wouldn’t be shooting a romantic comedy or luxury-car commercial next door.

When the call sheet calls for neither witty patter nor rich Corinthian leather but instead for orgiastic sex, cachet isn’t what the neighbors talk about. Morality, their children’s physical safety, property values -- those are the topics on many people’s minds.

The tale of the Hayvenhurst cul-de-sac, where several adult productions have been shooting almost nonstop for two weeks (and were booked to continue through Monday), pulls back the curtain on how one of the region’s most thriving industries -- pornography -- coexists with the city itself.

Sure, the neighbors concede, they didn’t actually see any nudity or obscene activity, but the mere idea that it was going on next door bothered them.

A week before Easter Sunday, neighborhood residents received a flier notifying them that there would be filming down the street in the coming days. Johnson, who works at home as an advertising consultant, said he didn’t think much of it.

But soon after the crews started arriving two weeks ago, Johnson’s wife called the number on the flier to find out more about the company in their midst.

She was told it was Califa Productions, which shoots films for Vivid Entertainment Group, one of the world’s largest purveyors of hard-core porn.

The next day, after Johnson barraged city officials with e-mails and phone calls, he was told the production was legal: Califa had been issued the proper permit.

“As far as content, we don’t have any authority to go in and do anything unless there’s an impact on the neighborhood,” said Steve MacDonald, president of Film L.A., the city agency that authorized almost 55,000 individual days of shooting in 2005 -- with fewer than 3,000 of those, he said, devoted to porn. (City officials believe many adult films don’t obtain the required permits.)

MacDonald and his staff said that because of the free-speech provision of the 1st Amendment, they do not discriminate against adult film producers as long as they abide by the conditions of their permit.

Permits for adult films are the same as for any other shoot in terms of parking and street activity, but different in that interiors and exteriors must not be audible or visible to the public.

The Hayvenhurst residents say they’re all for creative freedom. But to all but the ones who were getting paid $1,750 a day by Califa Productions, what was happening on their street at holiday time just didn’t seem right.

“I was stunned that whoever issues permits for this would be that insensitive,” Johnson said. “If they had been shooting a ‘West Wing’ episode that day, I wouldn’t have had the same reaction.”

As it turned out, Easter was just the beginning.

Not 24 hours after the Califa trucks drove off, a new crew arrived. This time it was Playboy Entertainment Group, working on a reality television show. The Playboy shoot went through the end of the week, with dozens of trucks entering and exiting the cul-de-sac.

Last Monday yet another company arrived, PW Productions -- this time to shoot explicit DVD and video cover art for a series of adult films.

Residents circulated a petition that alleged the filming has “introduced unsavory and undesirable elements” into their “otherwise peaceful neighborhood.” Twenty-two residents signed.

Where had the neighborhood gone, they wondered? And who were the neighbors who seemed determined to erode it?

“They don’t wave, they want nothing to do with anyone else,” said Cohen, the paralegal. “Why should we be put out just because they want to make money?”

Regulations require certification of ownership in order to rent out a home as a film location. According to property records, the house -- a 15-year-old, four-bedroom, five-bath, 5,000-square-foot, stone-and-brick traditional -- sold last year for $1.65 million to Hamid Banafsheha.

When reached by phone last week, Banafsheha -- a 40-year-old electric supply warehouse owner -- said he had just found out about the filming from neighbors. Banafsheha said he had rented the home to a couple with two infant daughters.

“I’m sorry for all the neighbors,” he said, adding that he had told his tenants to cease and desist. Because he plans to put the home up for sale in a month, he said, “I don’t want the property value to come down -- I mean, it’s real estate here.”

A woman who answered the phone at the film site last week and identified herself as tenant Odelia Bustenay did offer a response to the neighbors’ concerns before abruptly hanging up.

“Everything we do here is legal,” she said. “We got permits for everything. If they are upset then they are nosy.”

There’s a joke in the porn industry about the nosiness the business seems to inspire. It goes like this: An old lady calls the police after she finds out a porn film is being shot next door. When the officer arrives, he peers through the window but can’t see anything.

“You have to go upstairs,” she says, leading him to a second-floor bathroom. Still, he sees nothing.

“No,” she said, “you have to stand on the toilet.”

Steven Hirsch, the co-founder of Vivid, which distributes 60 films a year, said he knows that adult productions make some people uneasy. He said that only makes Vivid crews more careful.

“We are cognizant that the neighbors are around when we shoot,” he said. “We are quiet, and we don’t bring a lot of equipment. There aren’t people running around naked, and you can’t look through the fence in the backyard and see what we are doing.”

Hirsch added that the reason this particular house has attracted so many productions is that it’s awfully cheap. Many houses charge upward of $5,000 per day, or almost three times what Banafsheha’s tenants were getting.

Brooke, 22, a tall, skinny blond who said she got rid of her last name long ago, costarred alongside the twins -- Lacey and Lyndsey Love -- in Vivid’s “The Alphabet” and doesn’t understand why residents got so worked up.

“I’m a human being, and I don’t see what the big deal is,” she said.

“The person in the next house should get a life, because we’re shooting inside and it doesn’t harm them. It was just a normal day. I did what I had to do and went home and had dinner with my family.”

Meanwhile, Film L.A. staffers said that in the wake of the petition, they have flagged the home as overused, with too many productions being done there in too short a time. They do not plan to issue any more permits for the time being.

Larry Flynt Productions, which was due to shoot at the house Monday, has canceled. The neighborhood opposition, the company told the city, had ruined the mood.