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Hollywood Does Remake of Old Industrial Sites

July 02, 1989|SUE MARTIN | Sue Martin is an editorial assistant at The Times

The film capital of the world is moving to Vernon.

Well, not quite.

While the major studios aren't relocating lock, stock and sound stage to the meat-packing city, more and more television and film production companies are setting up their own operations in unexpected corners of Los Angeles--such as Vernon, South Gate and the Eastside.

What has drawn the film makers to such unlikely locales are millions of square feet of empty industrial space with high ceilings just begging to be made into something Hollywood-marvelous, such as, well, the sewer tunnels of New York City.

It's true. Witt-Thomas Productions, makers of CBS' cult favorite TV show "Beauty and the Beast" uses an old Vernon paper mill as its studio for the adventures of attorney Catherine Chandler and her hirsute friend Vincent, who inhabits tunnels and chambers below Manhattan.

"What made this space in Vernon so attractive was there was one chamber with 17,000 square feet totally clear and a (ceiling height) of 42 feet," said Harry Waterson, a consultant for the show.

The old building also has a cellar with 12-foot ceilings, where the producers could intertwine tunnels to create their subterranean world, he said.

"Beauty" is just one of several productions that have been filmed in deserted industrial buildings. Others are a pilot for a series based on "Alien Nation" and the movies "Robocop" and "Lethal Weapon," filmed in an empty Ford plant in Long Beach; "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai" and "Swing Shift," shot in the Firestone plant in South Gate, and the series "Cagney and Lacey," at the converted factories at the Lacy Street Production Center in Los Angeles.

And a number of production companies have turned to commercial real estate brokerage firms, such as the Seeley Co., Grubb & Ellis, KB Management and ZSI, which offer listings of available industrial space.

Such sites range from a vacant seven-story office building in downtown Los Angeles to a storage facility for perishables on the Eastside.

But besides those millions of square feet of vacant industrial space waiting to be bathed by spotlights, there are practical and financial reasons for filming outside the major studios.

"Here we're probably paying 50% less per square foot than I would be paying for a stage," Waterson said, "and in addition, my support staff is probably 10 cents on the dollar to what it would cost at a full-service production facility at one of the major studios.

30-Mile Limit

". . . (And) we're not at the mercy of other companies on a lot (at a major studio), which are waiting in line for services. We're our own master here," he said.

Another financial consideration favoring the reclamation of empty industrial buildings is the movie industry's 30-mile limit.

An agreement worked out between the film unions and film makers provides economic incentives for staying within a 30-mile radius of Beverly and La Cienega boulevards. As Donna Wells of the California Film Commission described it:

"If you go outside of that zone, you spend a lot of money on per-diem and travel time. So production companies try to stay in this radius."

This adds up to 6,000 permits a year to shoot in the city of Los Angeles and 2,500 in the county, not counting independent cities, which also issue hundreds of permits a year. And all this brings $5 billion in revenue to the state of California, Wells said.

Needed High Ceilings

Waterson detailed the search that Witt-Thomas undertook for "Beauty."

"We hired a location scout, and he must have looked at 30 or 40 locations, including the studios, around town.

"One of our requirements was high ceilings, especially for our permanent sets. One of the problems at looking at warehouse space was you could get huge expanses, but it would all be clear, it wouldn't be segmented into separate boxes of space."

But at the Vernon site there were two chambers of 17,000 square feet, as well as the cellar. And there is also some storage space, which is important because it allows the producers to recycle a set.

Bring Up to Code

"At Ren-Mar in Culver City (where "Beauty and the Beast" filmed its first season), when we finished something, we just threw it away because we had nowhere to put it," Waterson said.

It can be expensive to bring an empty warehouse up to building and safety codes and make it suitable for film production, as the "Beauty" producers found out.

"We put a million dollars into leasehold improvements here," Waterson said. The plumbing and fire-sprinkling system had been upgraded, but big expenses were incurred on air conditioning, electrical work and soundproofing--which can be critical when the 10 o'clock train goes by.

Nearby train tracks are just one of the problems that can work against a site as a film location. So is being under the flight patterns of an airport or being too close to a freeway.

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