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Incessant Film Shoots Leave Residents Reeling

L.A. neighborhoods want to rein in intrusive projects. The industry opposes restrictions.

June 16, 2003|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Not long after moving into his downtown Los Angeles loft, Jonathan Jerald awoke at 3 a.m. in a panic, blinded by a bright white light cascading across his bed.

"I thought I was being kidnapped by aliens," he said. "I was terrified for a second, and then, of course, I knew what it was."

It was a film shoot, one of thousands of commercials, television shows or movies filmed on city streets each year. The film industry says such shoots -- 44,000 days of them in Los Angeles and unincorporated county areas last year -- are minor annoyances that fuel a giant economic engine.

But in some areas of Los Angeles, such as Westwood, Pacific Palisades and downtown, residents complain that their neighborhoods have been turned into virtual studio back lots.

And now they are fighting back, urging the City Council to give neighborhoods more say in the way film shoots take place on city streets.

The film industry has reacted as though the council was about to slap an X rating on their top summer blockbuster. It warned that if residents are allowed to micro-manage film permits, studios will move their productions elsewhere, taking thousands of jobs with them.

"Producers have a lot of choices these days ... from as close as San Diego to as far away as Australia, Canada, Eastern Europe," said Melissa Patack, vice president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. "This is the reality of what has become a global business."

After representatives from the film industry flooded City Hall and raised the specter of massive job losses, the council backed away from Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski's plan to give neighborhood councils a say in drafting new regulations for the agency that hands out film permits.

Instead, the council asked an accounting firm to hold community meetings and come up with a way to heed residents' concerns without scaring away the industry and the billions of dollars it pumps into the local economy each year. The meetings will begin this week, and both sides say they are hopeful.

Still, in many neighborhoods, the anger and frustration about filming have reached the boiling point.

"I bought a house on a residential street," Van Nuys resident Joe Montoya complained to the City Council. "I didn't buy on a back lot."

From the Valley to downtown to the Westside, residents say their streets are crowded, their parking spaces are blocked and their sleep is interrupted by blazing klieg lights and bangs and screeches from simulated shootings and car crashes.

What's more, the residents say, they've been treated like the lowliest grips and gofers -- especially by the embattled Entertainment Industry Development Corp., a nonprofit agency overseen by city and county elected officials that handles the permits for shoots in city neighborhoods.

Council members say they are listening.

"It is a heartbreak every time we hear of the industry going other places," said Councilwoman Janice Hahn. "But our concern is also for the people who live in the communities.... It is their quality of life on a daily basis. Their quality of life and their peace of mind."

Central to any solution will be the EIDC, which since 1995 has served as a one-stop shop for companies seeking to film in Los Angeles County. Before the agency was created, producers had to scramble hither and yon through the city's bureaucracy obtaining permits from the Police Department, the Fire Department, the Bureau of Street Services and many other agencies.

Now, a producer makes one call to the EIDC, which can take care of a permit in hours or days, clearing the way for a caravan of white trailers and giant lights to sweep onto a residential street. Shoots involving explosions or helicopters take a little longer.

"The industry needs the ability, particularly with television, to move quickly," said Lindsley Parsons Jr., interim director of the EIDC. "That's what keeps them here, rather than running them out of town." The program is especially necessary because other countries, such as Canada and Australia, offer financial incentives to lure filming, he said.

Last fall the EIDC came under fire after the Los Angeles County district attorney's office began investigating it for misuse of funds. The agency is now being overhauled. But many residents say a larger problem was virtually ignored by the probes: the way the agency ran roughshod over their concerns, ignoring their phone calls and allowing producers to do whatever they wanted in their neighborhoods.

"There have been abuses that weren't being properly managed," said Miscikowski.

Jane Usher, who lives in Windsor Square near Hancock Park, likened the EIDC's employees to "gunslingers in the Wild West" who routinely ignored their own rules for protecting neighborhoods.

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