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The city's star turn is a drive-by

Car ads bask in L.A.'s chic, but is there a nadir in the headlights?

July 29, 2007|David Ehrenstein | Special to The Times

"LITTLE more than a badly planned and badly run suburban shopping center for those who cannot afford cars to get to the real 'suburbs,' rather than the vital heart of a thriving urban community." That's what critic Reyner Banham said of downtown in his seminal 1971 study "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies." For years, his view of downtown L.A. was the norm.

One can only wonder, then, what Banham would say today about the place he so resolutely dismissed as "a gutless-looking collection ... neither tough-minded nor sensitive, nor architectural monuments, nor Pop extravaganzas." In 2007 downtown is coming to life in a way it hasn't since the '30s -- even to the point of becoming fashionable.

There is, of course, the long-awaited Ralphs Fresh Fare supermarket, part of the new push by business to make it an attractive destination, and a population of affluent Angelenos is now living as well as working there. But there is another way downtown has begun to figure in the world's iconographic imagination: its growing popularity as a backdrop for automobile commercials.

"Upper Grand, lower Grand, the bridges, the 2nd Street tunnel, the Flower Street pedestrian bridges -- we call it 'the back lot,' " said production manager David Doumeng, who has worked for the last decade on any number of downtown-shot ads for Toyota and other automakers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
Car commercials: An article in the July 29 Calendar section about filming car commercials in downtown Los Angeles referred to a nonprofit company that helps connect commercial producers with relevant departments in the city as Excelpro. The name of the nonprofit is FilmL.A; the public relations for Film L.A. is handled by Excel P.R. There is no company called Excelpro. Also, the article incorrectly called Betsy Ann Faiella a freelance production manager. She is a producer, and her correct first name is Betsyann.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 05, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
Car commercials: An article in the July 29 Calendar section about filming car commercials in downtown Los Angeles referred to a nonprofit company that helps connect commercial producers with relevant departments in the city as Excelpro. The name of the nonprofit is FilmL.A; the public relations for Film L.A. is handled by Excel P.R. There is no company called Excelpro. Also, the article incorrectly called Betsy Ann Faiella a freelance production manager. She is a producer, and her correct first name is Betsyann.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 12, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part Page Calendar Desk 2 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction
Car commercials: An article July 29 about filming car commercials in downtown Los Angeles referred to a nonprofit company that helps connect commercial producers with relevant departments in the city as Excelpro. The name of the nonprofit is Film L.A.; the public relations for Film L.A. is handled by Excel P.R. There is no company called Excelpro. Also, the article incorrectly called Betsy Ann Faiella a freelance production manager. She is a producer, and her correct first name is Betsyann.

The inadvertent result has been the transformation of the area into a chic, desirable, all-purpose metropolis, at least on your television screen.

It might seem strange that car commercials want a cityscape as a backdrop. But if a car traveling the open road of the countryside can convey freedom, and still does in many car ads, cities are synonymous with sophistication.

That's where downtown L.A. comes in. "What other place in the city is like this?" said Betsy Ann Faiella, a freelance production manager with more than 16 years' experience in the business. "You want 'young, hip, urban, elegant.'? Then it's a shot of a car pulling up in front of a downtown hotel."

It's also the go-to place when clients tell production people such as Doumeng and Faiella, "We're looking for a generic cityscape." The trick then is to offer urban images that aren't linked directly to an identifiable, culturally specific place, such as New York. That New York is often prohibitively expensive and film production is primarily located here helps immeasurably, but the all-purpose urban-upscale look of downtown L.A. seals the deal.

"To shoot in L.A.," Faiella explained, "you have to have a fair amount of money, but they do assist you. Sometimes three different companies want to shoot on the same street on the same day and they help you arrange that." The "they" she's referring to is Excelpro, a private nonprofit started in 1995 that functions as a kind of "one-stop shop" providing information on what permits will be required and when select streets will be available and helping connect commercial producers with relevant departments in the city.

Excelpro notes that today the overwhelming majority of production activity in downtown involves commercials (38%), followed by television (19%), feature films (15%) and still photography (15%).

Downtown L.A. looks mighty good in these commercials -- not just urban but clean, sleek, fresh and sunny. But downtown does not work for every car. "It all depends on the right terrain for the right car," Faiella noted. "When you want downtown it's not 'soccer mom' cars," which would require a suburban setting and/or the generic open road. "It's BMWs and sedans," she said.

Nor is its appeal limited to the U.S. market. Andrew Gim of Resonate Pictures has produced downtown-shot commercials for KIA and Hyundai designed for the Europe and never seen stateside. "The type of shot your clients tend to want" -- an upscale vehicle moving at a swift but steady pace against a backdrop of multistoried buildings -- "is right here in downtown Los Angeles, plus all the equipment you'll need to get it. It's just about perfect."

L.A. in its leading roles

LOS ANGELES neighborhoods, of course, have a long history of telling tales about themselves on screen. "Point Blank" gave us the towers of Century City; "Chinatown" showed Beverly Hills as a manicured lawn concealing less than manicured lusts; and "The Long Goodbye" conveyed Malibu as the coolest place to have a barbecue -- or end it all by walking into the waves at sunset.

Many movies have featured occasional "picturesque" downtown locales such as Olvera Street and Union Station. And there's one truly significant downtown movie: "Blade Runner," the 1982 science-fiction epic projecting a 2019 future in which street congestion (flying cars favored over land transport) and a wildly multicultural populace gabbing in a half-Spanish/half-Chinese argot roil in decorative squalor. That movie added to the notion of downtown as a forbidding realm of chaos and decay.

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