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Traditional home tours are becoming obsolete. Real estate agents are using movies to sell mansions

A woman in a red dress twirls with a dark and mysterious man through light-filled hallways. Music flutters and surges in a romantically lit courtyard overlooking the twinkling city. A mischievous coda plays, and then the credits roll.

It's a classic scene plucked straight from Hollywood. But this eight-minute mini-movie is far from a silver-screen blockbuster.

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It's a real estate advertisement — uploaded to Vimeo — for an $8.5-million, 1.5-acre compound in Encino.

Successfully marketing a mansion now requires much more than panning shots from an iPhone or even expensive videos shot by drone. Real estate agents with luxury listings are now experimenting with full-on property movies — films featuring actors, story arcs, scores and Tinseltown-caliber cinematography.

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"The classic old-school walking tour of the house is becoming more and more obsolete — with all the content that's thrown at us these days, it's hard to hold someone's attention with that," said Kristine May, who directed the Encino shoot and owns If I May Films in Woodland Hills. "People get attached to a story, and they want to stick around and see what's happening."

So what if the narrative and performances are sometimes more Razzie than Oscar? Real estate agents contend that movies showcase their properties in a way that helps buyers envision themselves there.

Real estate agent Ben Bacal, an early innovator of high-gloss property films, worked with married clients Ori and Nafisa Ayonmike to craft a $20,000 film to market their home in Hollywood.

The Ayonmikes star in a fictional narrative that begins with Ori skulking through the sleek, contemporary rooms of his 5,500-square-foot, five-bedroom estate. In the next 11 minutes, Ori tells Nafisa he wants a divorce, a passionate fight ensues, Ori gets kicked out and Nafisa chucks her massive diamond ring into the pool.

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A scene from a Beverly Hills estate's video.
A scene from a Beverly Hills estate's video. (OPUS by Nile Niami / Hilton & Hyland)

Amid all the high drama, production company Rafiki captures the home's 20-foot ceilings, high-tech security system, marble fireplaces and tony Hollywood Hills neighborhood. The video of the property listed at $3.65 million has generated nearly 61,000 views since being posted on YouTube last year.

Online video platforms have become a key component in property sales. Some 36% of home buyers used YouTube, Vimeo or another video hosting website in their search last year, despite only 8% of real estate agents using film in their marketing strategies, according to the National Assn. of Realtors.

Bacal posted another movie trailer-esque listing video last year for a Bel-Air property, in which two children develop Ferris Bueller fevers and spend the day playing hooky. The pair splash in their infinity pool, shoot golf balls over the Los Angeles skyline from their lawn, try on outfits in their generous closets and have a puppy delivered by drone.

The 14,230-square-foot spread sold in December for $39 million.

Typically, the filmmaking cost is covered by either listing agents, sellers or both. Movie-style real estate videos can cost anywhere from $5,000 to upward of $30,000 to make, directors estimated.

Not all of the properties are extravagant or overwrought.

One narrative video, for a four-bedroom home in Brea that sold in October, focused on family. The movie trailer for the 3,008-square-foot property, posted to YouTube three months earlier by the Boutique Real Estate Group — features little girls at a sleepover romping through various bedrooms and having a late-night living room dance party to Taylor Swift.

Some properties take naturally to the camera.

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Consider the 20,500-square-foot Opus spec estate in Beverly Hills. The $100-million listing — which includes seven bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, two swimming pools, art by Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol, and a champagne vault with 170 bottles of Cristal — was featured last spring in a video inspired by David Lynch and "Eyes Wide Shut."

A scene from a Hollywood home's video.
A scene from a Hollywood home's video. (Ben Bacal Estates)

Producer Alexander Ali of the Society Group worked with Hilton & Hyland selling agent Drew Fenton and developer Nile Niami — who co-produced Steven Seagal's 1998 film "The Patriot" — on the Opus film. A European company that has worked with luxury brands such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton shot the footage.

"We knew this house needed to be treated in a different way…. We didn't want your typical drone shots and doors opening," Ali said.

In the resulting film, there's a woman wearing a virtual-reality headset who writhes erotically in a bedroom with a view of downtown. She's given a crown by gold-painted models beside her infinity pool. There is only the barest of clothing throughout.

"We wanted it to go viral, because our buyer may not be in America," Ali said. "We spared no expense."

Opus has now received inquiries from China, Russia, Brazil and India. Across various online platforms, the video has been viewed more than a million times.

"Realtors these days who work with the top 1% in Los Angeles are basically luxury brands," Ali said. "These homes cost more than a movie, so in this town, why shouldn't they be treated like one?"

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