Todd King, who is scouting locations for a low-budget comedy called "Night School," found the school of his dreams, or at least part of it, in Altadena.
"Night School," King explained, is a movie about a slob among snobs whose life is changed by attending night school at "the most beautiful, elegant high school in the world."
King found the perfect exterior for that mythical institution at Charles W. Eliot Middle School. The Altadena school has a "very regal and Ivy League" appearance, King explained. Because the school is in Altadena, there's a bonus for the film makers. They had to pay only about $100 for a county film permit, not the $480 daily filming fee they would have had to pay if they had decided to shoot in nearby Pasadena.
Movie-making may seem an unlikely business for schools to be in, even in a small way. But this is Los Angeles, after all, where the real routinely becomes the reel.
Like the beach at Malibu and downtown's skyscrapers, Los Angeles-area schools constantly appear in films, TV shows and commercials, mostly because of their proximity to the studios.
Although filming in schools isn't always as simple as ABC, film makers regularly call upon local schools to serve as locations for everything from bright, bouncy fast-food commercials to sleazy teen-age slasher pictures. For their part, many schools regard the entertainment industry as a relatively innocuous source of extra income, more important now in this era of austere education budgets.
Shooting in the schools tends to be seasonal, said Matt Spies, an administrator in the business office of the Los Angeles County Office of Education. Peak season is summer when the office receives two or three inquiries a week. Spies tells callers which of the county's 95 school districts have facilities for lease.
Occasionally, he is happy when he can't fill a request. Last year, a representative of Steven Spielberg called, trying to find a
battered, shabby-looking school. "We weren't able to find them anything," Spies said. "Most of the schools in the county haven't reached that state of disrepair."
The Pasadena Unified School District receives half a dozen requests a year from film makers, said Donna Overton of the district's permit office. Rates vary according to what is being shot, but usually average about $1,000 a day. Companies are not allowed to film during school hours and must leave the site as they found it.
King looked elsewhere in the county for other parts of his dream school. He found the elegant interiors he sought at John Burroughs Senior High School in Burbank, where classroom scenes were filmed. Locker-room scenes were filmed in the South Bay at R. K. Lloyde Continuation High School in Lawndale. Like many others, the Centinela Valley Union High School District doesn't allow movie making to interrupt the educational process. But the district was able to accommodate "Night School" because was filmed at night.
"There isn't a week that goes by that one of our schools isn't used for a film, TV show or commercial," said Robert Niccum, director of real estate for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The district charges film companies $1,000 for an eight-hour day. For each additional hour (many film makers work a 12-hour day), the charge is $100. If shooting takes place after 5 p.m., on weekends or holidays, the company also pays $14 an hour for custodial overtime.
In comparison, the Beverly Hills Unified School District, which is often asked to lease handsome Beverly Hills High School and collegiate-looking Beverly Vista Elementary School, charges $1,000 for every four hours. According to Bernice Skolnick, administrative assistant for business affairs, the district accommodates two or three requests a year. Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District has charged $2,500 a week for the Excelsior High School building in Norwalk, a closed school where much of "Grease II" was made in 1982. (The building is now leased by a Korean church.)
According to Niccum and his staff, the Los Angeles district's most popular site for filming is the San Pedro-Wilmington Skills Center, an adult education facility with an ocean view on the grounds of Ft. MacArthur.
'Most Popular Site'
"It would kill the film industry if we razed these buildings," Principal Richard Belman said recently. "We've got these bunkers that look like you're on another planet. This is the most popular site in the world."
Goldie Hawn's "Private Benjamin" and two recent TV miniseries--"Fatal Vision" and "From Here to Eternity"--were among the projects shot there.
Other Los Angeles district schools popular with film makers include Van Nuys and Ulysses S. Grant high schools, both in Van Nuys, John Marshall High School in Silver Lake, Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades and John Burroughs Junior High in the Wilshire district.