L.A. airports fly high with film shoots

Times Staff Writer

The television drama “LAX” nearly ended up being shot in Dallas.

The short-lived NBC series, starring Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood as competing airport managers, was originally to be called “Hub” and take place at a fictional Southland airport. The show’s pilot episode was shot at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

But Los Angeles International Airport officials persuaded the series’ producers to switch to the hometown facility for the 13-episode season, making it a part of local airport filming that has kept hundreds of jobs in the area and helped fill city coffers.


“We felt like they really ought to film that in Southern California,” said Paul Haney, deputy executive director of airports and security for Los Angeles World Airports.

From the now-canceled “LAX” to movies like “The Terminal” and “Catch Me If You Can,” film shoots at Los Angeles’ airports generated $590 million in wages and other revenue for the L.A. region between 2002 and 2005, according to a study to be released today by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

The report also credits airport filming with providing 4,800 full-time jobs that produced $280 million in wages and $1 million in city sales tax revenue. The study was based on a survey of the L.A. airport agency’s filming permits at its four airports: LAX, Van Nuys, Palmdale and Ontario. The survey arrived at its results by amassing all direct and indirect business revenue in L.A. County associated with film production at those airports.

Agency officials called for the study after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when airports nationwide stopped granting access to film crews for security reasons.

“We were under enormous internal pressure and pressure from the film industry to bring back film activity,” Haney said. They soon did, in January 2002, and today’s study was meant to examine the economic effects of the policy change. Researchers say it highlights the importance of making airports available to filmmakers and TV producers.

Filmmakers regularly seek out airports to shoot curbside, terminal and runway scenes, according to the study. But they also make use of sand dunes on LAX property and empty buildings under the airports’ care. Portions of “The Terminal” were shot in 2003 in a giant hangar at the Palmdale facility, Haney said.

Television programs accounted for more than one-third of productions at the airports, according to the study, and feature films less than 10%. Some TV shows have spent several weeks at a time shooting on airport property, though relatively brief shoots of two or three days are the norm for movies, commercials and music videos.

Los Angeles airports are attractive to filmmakers because of their proximity to Hollywood’s studios, production companies and actors, according to the study. Those factors give the area a “critical mass” that favors film production within Los Angeles.

“This validates the importance of the efforts we put in to support the film industry,” Haney said. “LAX is the most-filmed airport in the world. Every single day of the year, somebody is shooting a commercial, a television program or a major motion picture at one of our airports.”

But airports’ accessibility to the entertainment industry, which officials call their “film-friendly” policy, is being challenged by other states and countries seeking the economic windfall film production brings. Filming that used to be done almost exclusively in California is now seeing competition from outside the state, where filmmakers enjoy government subsidies, tax credits and other incentives, the report said.

The study cites Britain, New Zealand and Canada as countries with newly developed post-production facilities and industry-friendly policies that are wooing films away from L.A.

“There are large and quite lucrative incentives for film producers to shoot their films elsewhere. For the most part, Los Angeles and California don’t have that,” said Gregory Freeman, vice president of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. and lead author of the study. “We largely compete by having a large infrastructure already in place.”

Though filming at airport locations accounts for less than 1% of total production days in Los Angeles, the survey found, the availability of the facilities may have a ripple effect, leading crews to stay in Los Angeles for an entire project instead of opting for an out-of-state set.

“To the extent that we can keep even a part of the filming here, often the rest of the shoot will stay here,” Freeman said. The study represents “a tremendous understatement of the overall positive impact that a film-friendly policy has on the L.A. economy,” he added, stressing that the study considered only the impact of days shot on airport property.

Not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of more filming in and around the region’s already busy airports.

When the Bruce Willis action move “Live Free or Die Hard” was being filmed next to LAX last fall, area residents, air cargo businesses and others raised concerns over the producers’ intermittent closing of portions of the 105 Freeway and Imperial Highway. But the project went ahead, although with somewhat shortened shooting time.