In El Segundo, disquiet about the sets
Principal James Garza strode onto El Segundo High’s North Quad, tennis courts behind him, and pointed to the school’s bell tower. “That’s the shot,” he said with a proud smile, recalling a scene from the 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle” that was filmed on campus.
The picture, which starred Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier, was one of the first shot at the high school. Nearly 55 years later, when Hollywood crews need a school for a TV show, movie or commercial, El Segundo High often is where they land.
Built in 1927, with brown brick Neo-Gothic architecture, pine trees and a spacious and well-groomed front lawn, the school can stand in for Anywhere U.S.A. -- whether that means the TV shows “CSI: Miami,” “24" and “Beverly Hills 90210" or the movies “Superbad” and “War Games.” Even “The O.C.” was sometimes filmed at the ES.
In these tough economic times, when schools are concentrating on cutting budgets as much as some students are concentrating on cutting class, El Segundo figures it can pick up a significant piece of change by doubling the number of days film crews shoot at the school (they’re charged as much as $7,000 a day).
Many other school districts would love the extra revenue. But to those living near El Segundo High, filming can also mean congestion and noise regardless of who the star is. Complaints about the disruption have led the City Council to limit shooting days and work to balance neighbors’ concerns with the school’s need for more money.
Fees from TV, film and commercial shoots -- and even still-photo shoots -- can be a lucrative sideline for schools. Garza said the approximately $100,000 El Segundo earns annually has been used to buy computers and library furniture and to equip a weight room Garza says rivals that of a small college, along with more mundane items such as science supplies.
Geoff Yantz, superintendent of the El Segundo Unified School District, said the film money is “critical . . . it could be three teacher salaries.”
Los Angeles Unified schools made $1.756 million last year from filming, led by the 48 days at Birmingham High in Van Nuys, 47 days at University High in West Los Angeles and 34 days at Le Conte Middle School in Hollywood, according to FilmLA, the nonprofit that coordinates on-location permits for the city and much of Los Angeles County.
Patricia Edgar, manager of property management for FilmLA, said she receives 10 to 15 calls a day from movie people asking for schools with a particular “look.”
But El Segundo High holds a special place in the hearts of filmmakers. “That school is an easy sell for the look of whatever show it is,” said James Fitzpatrick, deputy director of the California Film Commission, who has filmed there himself. “It doesn’t say ‘Southern California.’ It’s a classic look.”
Although “Blackboard Jungle” had been filmed much earlier, El Segundo High began to gain real popularity with location scouts in the 1980s, said Bill Watkins, a former principal and now a member of the Board of Education.
“I guess we were discovered with the two-story brick building and became a popular place,” he said.
Movies such as “Inspector Gadget” and the yet-to-be-released “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” were filmed there, along with the TV show “Joan of Arcadia” and a schoolyard full of commercials, including one for Nike.
Garza said there has been a conscious effort to increase filming at the school in the last 12 years. When the campus was refurbished, the palm trees out front were removed because they said “Southern California!” too loudly.
“Money has always been an issue,” he said. “Filming seemed to be the perfect fit for us.” From working with film crews so many times, Garza said that when they tell him what type of shot they’re looking for, he can point to a specific room or location.
“I dedicate a lot of time to these film companies,” he said.
Garza also said he had tried to listen to neighbors. As much as possible, crews park their trucks on campus instead of on the street, and they must use a generator that spews less pollution.
About 2 1/2 years ago, Mayor Kelly McDowell said, city officials began hearing more complaints about film crews from neighbors, and it became an issue in last year’s council campaign.
A City Council subcommittee was appointed and the California Film Commission was consulted. In October, after months of meetings, new regulations were issued that limited filming in one area to 20 days a year, with the possibility of four more days if neighbors agreed to it.
Previously, there were no limits to the amount of filming at El Segundo High. Garza said 40 days a year was the most that had occurred at the campus.
But the school used up its filming allotment by April. Garza said that as of mid-June, he had turned down five productions.
In May, the district went back to the council to ask for another 20 days, which could generate an additional $140,000.
“Given the economic situation, it seems it would be a slam dunk in our favor,” Garza said. “Unfortunately, others don’t see it that way.”
Councilman Don Brann, former superintendent of the Wiseburn School District in El Segundo and Hawthorne, opposed any changes.
“The people who live around the high school know they’ll have to deal with issues of living around a high school, but they didn’t necessarily buy in that it was going be a Hollywood set,” he said.
Garza disagreed, calling the opponents of the extra days “a vocal minority that has the ear of the City Council.”
At a meeting earlier this month, the council decided to hold a workshop to discuss the issue with the school district, the film commission and residents.
Call it the sequel.