Explaining Hollywood: How to get a job as a location manager
In Lori Balton’s career working in locations in Hollywood, she has scouted for 1992’s “A River Runs Through It,” 2002’s “Catch Me If You Can” and 2022’s “Top Gun: Maverick.”
She found the site in Hawaii that would become the kingdom for the antagonist mermaids “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” She helped pinpoint the best location in Yellowstone National Park for the live-action “Lion King’s” Elephant Graveyard. And she traversed the Amazon River, from Brazil to Peru, to provide research for Disney’s “Jungle Cruise.”
But just as often, she’s surveying alleys in downtown L.A., stepping over dead rats, cigarette butts and used condoms, she said.
The first half of the job as a location manager is very creative, said Alison Taylor, veteran location manager and vice president of the Location Managers Guild International. This is the scouting part, where you’re working with the production designer and director to find the right locations, she said. What does this character’s home look like? What does this restaurant look like? What kind of street do they need in this scene?
Once the locations have been found, the second half is logistics.
“It’s like planning an event,” she said. “You have to contract with each location. You have to arrange for parking and figure out where catering is going. We arrange for all the tables, chairs, tents, air conditioning. You’re hiring police and fire safety and security.”
There’s a lot of pride that comes from finding and securing the backdrop — or canvas — of a film or television project, she said.
Taylor (“A Wrinkle in Time,” “Insecure,” “Shang-Chi”); Balton; veteran location manager Gregory Alpert (“Minority Report,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Big Little Lies”); and Whitney Breite (“Truth Be Told,” “Prey,” “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty”), an assistant location manager who recently started working in film and television, share their advice on how to get into location management.
Who becomes a location manager?
“Curious people make wonderful scouts,” Taylor said. “People who are just out there in the world, looking around, driving.”
They know why a neighborhood looks a certain way, she said. They know about all these nooks and crannies that other people wouldn’t know.
It also helps to be a skilled photographer, to learn how to analyze a script, to understand lighting and to visualize how a film camera would move through the location. When Balton worked on “Seabiscuit,” she heard the cinematographer tell the director, “Do you realize that everywhere we put the camera at every location is exactly where Lori Balton took her pictures from?”
“I said to him, ‘That’s what I want it to say on my tombstone,” she said.
Though the job involves exploring new places on your own, it helps to be a people person.
“You can’t be shy,” Balton said. You have to knock on doors. You have to persuade people to let you film in places. You have to be able to negotiate.
Most people on a film or television set can exist in a Hollywood bubble, Taylor said, because their job is to be hyper-focused on helping the director or showrunner make the best product. But locations is the one department where it’s also their job to think about how the production is affecting the rest of the community.
“The moment you leave the backlot, the location manager is the principal liaison between the studio/production office and the outside world,” Alpert said.
He said that people often joke that he should be the mayor, because he’s dealing with everyone from politicians to residents — sometimes introducing neighbors who haven’t met yet — to business owners to unhoused people.
Locations is also the department that handles a lot of the complaints, so you have to have thick skin and good communication skills, Taylor added.
“How you deal with angry, frustrated people is a big deal,” she said. “You can’t take it personally when a merchant is yelling because they feel that the production has caused them to lose money — or a neighbor doesn’t like that they’re being held up by the police so the crew can get the shot.
“When you’re dealing with the outside world, how the movie goes is not their lives. They don’t care. They’re not making any money off your movie. They’re going to be late for work.”
Balton — who has previously done location management but since built a career where she can focus on location scouting — thinks location management is the hardest job on the set.
“If anything goes wrong, no matter what department, they trace it back to the location manager,” she said. “And if anything goes right, there are five producers standing in line to take the credit. So you have to really have the right kind of personality for the job where you are confident enough that you don’t constantly need somebody patting you on the back.”
How do you get started?
There aren’t any formal pathways to get into location work, Alpert said. But the job you want to land is the assistant location manager.
“That’s who we call the closer, because they’re the last ones there every day,” Taylor said. “They’re the person on the walkie-talkie when people are calling for locations.”
But Balton recommends getting a job as a production assistant first. Because you get a sense of how a movie set works and whether location work is actually what you want to do.
There are other ways to get on set. Balton started working in craft services and was an assistant production coordinator in the ‘80s before discovering her knack for location scouting. Breite, who previously worked as a union stage manager and ran a DJ company, entered the film and television industry in 2020 through a job on-set with the COVID team. She met Alpert on the set of the television show “Mom.” He mentored her and helped her get into the union.
Taylor used to sell pharmaceuticals by day and do event planning by night. One day, she visited a friend who worked as an assistant production coordinator on a set, and she was intrigued by the location department. Her friend later introduced her to a location manager, and she was at the right place at the right time when someone dropped out and she was able to fill in as an assistant location manager.
It helps to have connections, but if you don’t have any, Taylor and Alpert recommend walking up to a movie or TV set and asking the security guard to direct you to the location manager.
“I wouldn’t recommend that for other departments,” Taylor said, “but I would recommend it for our department. We are the people who interface with the community. ... We would come, we’d give them a card and say, ‘Send me an email, and we’ll set up a time to talk.’”
Taylor also recommends getting involved in the Location Managers Guild International. They host events and have volunteer opportunities, she said, and it’s a good way to meet people.
“It can be tricky to get into the union,” which is where you need to be to get regular work, she said. “You need 30 days on union projects in order to join the union. But most of the time, people can only join the union if everyone else on the union’s availability list is not suitable or available for the role.”
But it’s good to be on other location managers’ radars when entry-level opportunities pop up.
“People hire who they know,” Taylor said. “That’s the truth. And they only go to the people that they don’t know when they need more people.”
One other strategy to get experience in the film industry is to start with unpaid or nonunion work.
“If you have the flexibility of being all over the country, then you may want to start someplace like Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh or other markets that have a lot of filming now,” she said.
Other cities have different location practices, she explained. For example, some productions that film on the East Coast hire location production assistants, which is not a common job in Los Angeles. In New York, there can be a whole team of production assistants specifically for parking, she said.
“When you get international, there’s a unit team,” she said. “Someone is a unit manager, and it’s a group of people handling equipment” — fans, space heaters, random tables and extra chairs.
And lastly, the biggest learning curve is familiarizing yourself with the different parts of the city, Taylor said. It helps to know that Pasadena has different filming rules from the city of Los Angeles, or that Granada Hills has a pocket of Eichler houses.
“Location managers who have been doing it for a while, we have a collective history and knowledge base,” said Alpert. “Over the years, you build up this Rolodex in your head.”
You’ll probably need the help of a film location service that has good contacts with ad agencies and filmmakers. And even then, it helps to have the right kind of space.
What are the career paths?
There are three main positions: assistant location manager, key assistant location manager and location manager.
“Within that, you have people who focus on scouting,” said Alpert. “You have commercial location managers who work on commercials. You also have people who work as location department coordinators to help the location manager in the office.”
“They’re like the hub,” said Balton, of location department coordinators. “There are some people who love that. They’re very organized, and they deal with papers and budgets.”
When you progress from assistant location manager to key assistant location manager, you’re expected to know how to manage your own locations, Taylor said. The location manager hires the team, works with the location scout and reports the best options to the director and production designer. And on larger projects, there are supervising location managers, who manage other location managers.
As a newbie in the industry, Breite’s goal is to try as many jobs within the location department as possible.
When she talked to The Times, she was working as a coordinator, processing contracts. On a previous project, she was the opener on set. She has also done prep work, which involved knocking on neighbors’ doors and getting them comfortable with the fact that there was going to be filming on their street. Next, she wants to get more experience in scouting.
Balton said her time working as a location manager also made her a better location scout.
“I understood the logistics of what needs there are on set,” she said. “It’s not very effective if you find the perfect location, and you can’t physically get the crew there.”
Location, location, location! Pretend you’re a part of the movies by heading to a bar featured in ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ or dancing where the lovers flirted in ‘La La Land.’
How do you make money? (And what kind of money?)
Once you get into the union, Hollywood Teamsters (Local 399), there are benefits and minimums.
For example, the minimum for an assistant location manager — whether they’re working on studio films, television shows (half-hour or hour) or made-for-DVD movies — starting July 2022 is $1,715 per week and will be raised to $1,820 effective July 30, 2023.
Location managers and key assistant location manager minimums vary, depending on the medium.
Location managers of studio films make a minimum of $3,491 per week; the key assistant location manager’s minimum is $2,215. And veterans are able to negotiate for much more.
“Additionally we get $91 per day for our car,” said Balton. “Back in the day, the car rental was a way to get studios to pay us more in general, as we average a 60-hour workweek over five days.”
And one of the benefits of working in locations is that once you get booked onto a project, you’re often there from pre-production to the end of production, Taylor said, which provides more stability than other departments where people are hired for shorter-term duties.
For many people who pursue entertainment as a career, it takes years to get yourself to where you are making money from your creative work. For making money in the meantime, there’s always waiting tables. But more and more people are turning to platforms like TikTok, Twitch and Patreon.
How is this career different than it was 10 or 25 years ago?
On his most recent project, Alpert had 23 people in his department. But: “Back when I started doing this, there’d be one location manager and one assistant,” Alpert said, “and I look back and go, ‘Oh, my God, how did we do some of these giant films with just the two of us?’ And this was prior to cellphones.”
Technology also changed things.
“Before, it was either 24 or 36 exposure [film], right?” he said. “So you really gave a lot of thought. ... How do I capture this in a handful of pictures to show the director and the production designer? You didn’t just take your cellphone or SLR and go click, click, click, click, click, click.”
Balton has recently started taking virtual scouting jobs.
“This may be a new sort of job that’s coming to fruition, someone who is just a location researcher,” she said. “I did it on the live action ‘Little Mermaid,’ where they asked me to start scouting really early on, before the director was ready to get into it, just to know what their possibilities were …. And then when the director was ready to pick it up, they took the results of my scouting, and they hired a team in Europe.”
Production designers are both creatives and bosses.
What advice do pros always hear that is wrong?
The professionals say that it’s less that they hear advice that’s wrong, but more that most people — even their fellow cast and crew members — don’t understand what they do.
The maps the cast and crew get when they enter a set, the yellow signs to tell people where to go, the filming notifications for residents — those are made by the locations team.
Checking the environmental impacts in the places filmmakers want to shoot — that work is also done by locations.
Shutting down a street for one day to shoot a one-minute Jaguar car crash scene in “Erin Brockovich” took six weeks to plan, said Alpert.
Shutting down a stretch of the California 73 toll road to shoot a two-minute scene in “The Hangover Part III” — in which Zach Galifianakis buys a giraffe and tows it in a trailer behind his car — required numerous permits, 35 California Highway Patrol officers and four months to plan.
“People just think this magically happens,” Taylor said.
Film producers will tell you that there’s no typical day in the job -- and there’s no single path to becoming a producer. But there are traits you can develop and entertainment industry paths to follow that will set you up for a career in Hollywood.
What’s some good advice?
Learn about architecture. “If you have a designer saying, ‘I want a mid-century modern house,’ you have to know what they’re talking about,” Taylor said.
Start in jobs with transferable skills. Though Breite is new to locations work, she came into the job with a lot of relevant experience, which she used to petition to get into the union. She had worked with vendors and site reps when she did weddings as a DJ. She had worked with union crews when she was a stage manager. “Coming from theater, I understand the nature of having to just keep the ball rolling and going with it,” she said. “So the ability to pivot and logic through things ends up being an asset.”
If you can, be a mentor. Because there aren’t formal pathways into their roles, the professionals The Times talked to try to go out of their way to educate potential newcomers about their profession. “I’m always happy to help people,” Balton said, encouraging interested parties to DM her on Instagram. “I would suggest that people not so much look at the pictures that I take, but to look at the different things that I follow. Different places in Europe, different abandoned building sites and historic building sites.”
Learn how to deal with frustrated people. It’s a lot of relationships to manage, Taylor said. You’re trying to be respectful to the people and places you’re filming, while accomplishing what the production needs.
“If anyone has a legitimate complaint, I’m gonna hear them out,” Briete said. “I had a guy say that someone was walking on his grass, and we put some caution tape up. He came up to me later to say, ‘Thank you. You addressed my concern, and you showed me you weren’t brushing me off.’ It just takes a little work. All we did was put caution tape up in his yard.”
Alpert said he always has the same goal for each of his projects: “I always want to leave a neighborhood and for them to want us back.”
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