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Downtown residents tiring of film scene

Times Staff Writer

For Benjamin Pezzillo and his wife, Erica, the flashpoint came one Sunday night in March, when the noise from the black chopper was so deafening that it made the couple’s glass dining room table vibrate.

Hovering about 300 feet above their building at 6th and Spring streets in downtown Los Angeles, the helicopter’s incessant roar had Pezzillo convinced he was in the middle of a police chase. At least until he saw the aerial camera pointed downward that, he learned later, was being used to film a Verizon ad.

“It was like a bus revving its engine right outside your window,” Pezzillo said. “It was inescapable.”

Concerned that downtown is turning into an urban back lot for movie, TV and commercial producers, the area’s growing population of residents and merchants is rebelling. A surge in filming, combined with incidents such as the March chopper episode, is galvanizing residents to push for tighter rules that could crimp shoots in one of the world’s busiest places for filming.

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The dispute reflects a larger clash playing out in the world’s entertainment capital between producers and residents weary of trucks, trailers, klieg lights, noise and crews in their neighborhoods at all hours.

“We’re not against filming, we’re just against filming that’s out of control and with no common sense,” said Russell Brown, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. “It’s been a very, very contentious issue for a lot of people.”

Southern California’s signature industry likes to shoot close to home. But it can easily pack up and move shoots to other locales that promise to make things easier. Elected officials worry that an inhospitable downtown could drain the region’s economy of some of the billions of dollars the industry generates each year.

Melissa Patack, vice president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, said companies recognized the changes downtown and were working to accommodate residents. But, she added, “there are many governments and other cities that are actively pursuing the industry.”

Downtown Los Angeles has been one of Hollywood’s favorite film spots dating to 1909’s “In the Sultan’s Power.” Its skyline is relatively free of landmarks, so it can easily stand in for other cities.

High above 9th Street and Broadway, silent film legend Harold Lloyd clung to a clock’s hands in 1923’s “Safety Last!” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger prowled downtown streets as an evil cyborg in the 1984 sci-fi classic “The Terminator.”

More recently, Kiefer Sutherland chased terrorists through the streets and across the Los Angeles River bridges on episodes of “24.” BMWs, Mazdas, Volkswagens and Hyundais zip down streets such as Grand Avenue in commercials.

During a 19-day period this spring, some 90 productions filmed downtown. On any given night, the 2nd Street tunnel west of Broadway, one of the bridges over the Los Angeles River or City Hall may be featured in a movie, TV program or commercial.

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“What people have to remember is that there is a 98-year history of downtown Los Angeles playing big city USA and other locales on the big screen,” said Harry Medved, coauthor of film location guide “Hollywood Escapes.”

Film production soared from 2002 to 2006 as local TV and commercial production boomed and the U.S. dollar sank in value, making shoots here more economical. Production days rose 21% to today’s record level, mostly because of TV shows including “Cold Case” and “Dancing With the Stars” and ads for such products as Coors Light.

Eight of this summer’s movies include scenes shot downtown, including “Live Free or Die Hard,” which opened last week and for which crews built a faux tunnel on Grand, and “Transformers,” which opens today and has scenes shot in the refurbished Orpheum Theatre on Broadway.

But as shooting boomed, tensions rose with the influx of new merchants and upscale professional residents -- many of whom work in the entertainment industry.

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From 2004 to 2006, according to the Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District, the number of residents downtown grew 20% to 28,878. An additional 20,000 residents are expected over the next two years, bringing the total population of a place that was largely vacant at night to nearly 50,000, according to the Central City Assn. of Los Angeles.

Buying expensive lofts and patronizing new trendy restaurants and bars in the area, downtown’s new residents were soon reviving formerly run-down pockets. Many saw filming as intrusive. What once was an annoyance quickly turned into a tense public-policy issue confronting residents and merchants alike.

“There are street closures every other weekend and sometimes every week,” said Bert Green, a neighborhood activist who owns an art gallery on 5th Street. During the closures “people can’t get anywhere near my business.”

Even downtown residents who work in the business have reached their limits.

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Screenwriter Celia Esguerra was awakened recently by a crew that started shooting a music video at 6 a.m., sending billows of smoke into her Los Angeles Street loft. That night, she said, another film crew shooting at the nearby Alexandria Hotel worked with giant crane lights until midnight -- two hours beyond what the film permit specified.

Then, at 2:40 a.m., she was awakened by what sounded like a freight train, as eight semitrailer equipment trucks pulled into a vacant lot to prepare for an eight-day shoot of the Patrick Dempsey comedy “Made of Honor.”

“It was like, ‘Oh my God! When is this going to stop?’ ” she said. “I don’t think this would happen in Hancock Park.”

For city officials, the issue is especially delicate. They want to encourage producers to keep shooting in Los Angeles but also want to encourage people and businesses to move downtown to help revitalize it.

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Trying to defuse tensions is the Central City Assn., a business advocacy group whose members include major Hollywood studios. It has hosted several meetings with the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council and FilmL.A. Inc., the nonprofit group that handles permits and notices of filming. The three groups are drafting special conditions similar to those that exist in other communities that would limit filming hours and require more stringent notifications in residential areas downtown.

“There’s been a drastic change downtown,” said Steve MacDonald, president of FilmL.A., which contracts with the city and county. “We’re trying to address that change by working with the production companies, the residents and merchants to ensure that their needs are met.”

Although it lacks the enforcement authority of a city agency, FilmL.A. in April put new guidelines into effect requiring monitors for all activity in the bank district and prohibiting late-night helicopter flights like the one that disturbed the Pezzillos. FilmL.A. says it is sending more e-mail notices directly to affected residents instead of relying on standard door hanger notices. Those and other changes will probably be included in the special conditions the City Council is expected to vote on this summer.

“We’re very hospitable to filming,” said City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes much of downtown. “I don’t think people are asking that much.”

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Tom Gilmore, whose company owns several buildings in the old bank district and is one of the architects of downtown’s revitalization, believes that tensions are easing with the new guidelines.

“We are both stakeholders downtown and we need to help each other do better business without hurting each other,” he said.

The new rules show the growing clout of downtown’s residents and their willingness now to push back against powerful entertainment interests.

Four years ago, resident councils sought more say in the way film shoots take place across Los Angeles, but the effort failed to gain traction after film industry representatives flooded City Hall and raised the prospect of massive job losses.

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The newfound muscle isn’t lost on Hollywood’s location managers, who scout places to shoot.

“Some film companies have not adjusted to the new terrain and they still view L.A. as a kind of back lot,” said Ilt Jones, a veteran location manager who worked on “Transformers.” “That’s anachronistic thinking.”

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Lights, Cameras and lots of action

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Film projects

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Below is a sample of movies and TV shows that filmed downtown thisyear:

Feature films"Live Free or Die Hard""Shooter""Rush Hour 3""The Eye""Invasion"--

TV shows"Heroes""Bones""Entourage""American Idol""Shark"--

Sources: FilmL.A., Downtown L.A. Business Improvement District, ESRI

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