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They're empty, but full of promise

Renting out vacant buildings as film locations can fill the needs of owners, production companies and the community.

December 02, 2002|Michael Mallory | Special to The Times

In most cities, an empty building is an eyesore, a sign of economic blight, possibly even a danger to the public. In Los Angeles and environs, however, it can be a source of capital to the owners and a boon to film producers.

Such is the case with an empty Sumitomo Bank branch in Gardena, whose vault is still, in a sense, protecting the building's assets. Studio crews would be foolish to try to replicate on a soundstage the size, weight, mechanical intricacy and sense of impregnability of the vault door. So they come to the real thing.

"Banks are always used in films, and it's hard to get operating banks to allow filming," says Joseph Darrell, owner of Film Friendly Locations, which represents the former Sumitomo Bank that has welcomed crews from, among other shows, "Robbery Homicide Division" and the recently axed "Push, Nevada." The massive vault, he says, is one of the only ones in the area open for filming.

Film Friendly Locations -- which lists everything from a downtown L.A. storefront to a castle with a moat -- is one of a small group of companies that represent properties in Southern California for use as film sets. Many remain inhabited, but for the so-called dead properties, those sitting unused, film location rent is owners' only source of income to offset the costs of mortgages, maintenance, taxes and utilities.

Although shooting on location is hardly a novelty, using empty commercial buildings for filming does address two ongoing, hot-button issues in L.A.: land use and building preservation and keeping production from leaving town to save a buck.

Just how much can be saved by filming in empty buildings, as opposed to renting soundstage facilities, is hard to say, because so many variables are involved, including the type of production and its budget. "Prices on the properties run in accordance with the size of the [building], the kind of use and the number of prep days," Darrell says. "If it's multiple shoot days and prep days, we discount it somewhat because we're getting many days' work."

On average, though, a commercial building might be rented out for $2,500 to $4,000 a day for the actual shoot, and less for prep and strike days, with the production company bringing in its own electrical and lighting packages and handling the permits and transportation. That is commensurate with the cost of renting four dark, empty walls of a soundstage, but is perhaps one-third the day rate for a back-lot location and one-fifth the tab for a fully equipped stage with power, a lighting package and a crew.

Darrell -- a lifelong Angeleno and former rock musician, actor, unit production manager and photographer -- got into the location business about eight years ago as a result of trying to help out a friend with an office building in Hollywood that suffered from low occupancy.

"I figured if I could put production into this building at the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga, people would want to be around where the production is," he says. "I started bringing production into the building and eight years later the building is full" -- except for the former bank space on the ground floor, which is still rented out for shoots.

Beyond cost considerations, the quest for the right look draws location managers and art directors to a specific location.

"Studios do not have much personality to them, and you have to go in and build," says Peg Meehan, owner of the Silver Lake-based Unreel Locations. "Usually, people come to us because they like certain architectural features."

For the Coen brothers film "The Man Who Wasn't There," a complete 1940s department store was needed for interior and exterior shots. The ideal site was found in the vacant Seeley Furniture store in Glendale, a property Meehan says she discovered almost by accident.

"I stopped by for the liquidation sale to buy some furniture, and looked around at the high ceilings and interesting architectural features," she says. "So as I'm paying for my sofa, I said, 'By the way, what's happening with this building after you close?' That's how we got going."

The Seeley complex -- which includes two showrooms and a brick warehouse with trussed ceilings -- has become a mini-studio in itself. In the three years since the owners moved out, the buildings have been refitted to represent a Staples store for a commercial, an auto showroom, a nightclub, even a Buddhist martial arts temple -- almost everything except a furniture store.

Likewise, the venerable Little Joe's Restaurant in Chinatown, which has stood vacant for more than three years, has been used for everything from a hotel to a prison in a Third World country.

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