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Acts of Extortion Steal the Scene From Film Crews

March 15, 1995|CYNTHIA H. CRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Scene 1, Take 1: A radiant young actress bounds up the church steps. Strains of organ music fill the air. Suddenly, in the midst of "Here Comes the Bride," a bystander blows a foghorn. "Woooo-oooogh!"

Cut!

The director tries the shot again. Once more, the foghorn blares. The disruption continues until a $200 payment is arranged for the horn's "rental." Finally, silence descends on the location. But by then the light has changed. The bride has lost her glow. And overtime costs have accrued.

Scenes such as this are growing more common in California, film industry representatives say, as an increasing number of opportunists prey upon on-location film crews with a harass-for-cash extortion scheme.

In a random survey of production personnel, the California Film Commission documented scores of cases in which residents, merchants, gardeners or others held film crews hostage by disrupting work until a wallet cracked open.

So widespread is the problem that the highest levels of state government have stepped in to find a solution, fearing economic loss for California as production companies get fed up and relocate out of state.

State Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) is carrying legislation to allow off-duty officers to ticket nuisance-mongers and drag them to court. His bill has the backing of Gov. Pete Wilson, the state Trade and Commerce Agency and the Film Commission.

"It's blackmail," said Rosenthal, who sits on the Film Commission as an appointee of the state Senate.

"When I heard about it, I thought maybe this is something that is happening only occasionally. But it's quite amazing. All over the place, people are blatantly saying, 'I won't sound my horn or blink these lights if you pay me $500.' "

Most incidents have occurred in Southern California, where film crews and their equipment are themselves sometimes regarded as a disruption to neighborhood life. But the scam has also surfaced in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, San Luis Obispo and elsewhere across the state.

"There are grumpy people out there who do this out of sheer greediness," said Patti Stolkin Archuletta, director of the Film Commission.

"These aren't thugs or criminals, just people who have this idea that the film industry is a cash cow with deep pockets."

Lest there be doubt about the extent of the trouble, Archuletta points to the fact that most production companies now routinely include in their filming budgets some money to pay off harassers.

"It is not acceptable for an industry to have to incorporate, as common practice, a line item for payoffs in their budget," Archuletta said. "It's not acceptable to the governor. It's not acceptable to the industry."

For a solid grasp of the problem, the commission mailed confidential surveys to 572 television and movie producers, location managers and others. One-fifth of the surveys were returned, with half the respondents reporting they had been victims of intentional disruption. A sampling of the responses offers a glimpse at the trend:

* "In one incident in Culver City, someone actually resorted to throwing things at the crew. This individual was compensated for the disruption. After filming was in process, he decided the compensation was not enough and decided to throw empty cans."

* "Santa Monica homeowner persistently used a foghorn until we paid him $200 to 'rent' his foghorn and eliminate the noise."

* "Chinatown L.A. merchants stood in the shot. Resolved when production company paid merchants for their cooperation."

* "Filming at an adjacent business in Hollywood, the business owner started to hammer on an iron security gate he determined needed attention. We had to pay him off . . . (he) closed his store for the day, having no difficulty closing the security gate."

* "Saxophone playing on the Venice Boardwalk. A sum was paid to play at a later date."

* "Loud music played to extort money, lights shine in camera lens, people disrupting in the background."

Industry personnel noted that, in the field, time is money and delays due to disruption prove costly. Some said the incidents left them exasperated enough to consider moving their operations to out-of-state communities that welcome the attention and revenue that filming brings.

"I'll hear from producers who say, 'We're tired of being extorted. The reason we went to Kansas, or wherever, is because we know they will never treat us this way,' " Archuletta said.

In California, film production amounts to a $16.3-billion industry, with about half of that sum spent on payroll, according to commission figures.

This week, Film Commission officials plan to meet with industry representatives to secure their commitment to the Rosenthal legislation. While the final language is still being worked out, the bill is expected to sail through the Legislature with an "urgency" clause attached, putting it on the fast track to becoming law.

But production companies will be put on notice to hold up their end of the bargain should the bill become law. That means issuing as many tickets as needed to bring a halt to disruptions, and then being willing to take offenders to small claims court if the $250 fines are not paid. Currently, officers working on film sites complain that they lack the authority to issue citations.

"This has taken on a life of its own," bemoaned Archuletta, noting that squelching the trend will take aggressive action.

"The industry will have to spend a small investment to get a big return."

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