At the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, artist-turned CIA technical officer Tony Mendez pulled off a stunning ploy when he helped six American diplomats in the Canadian embassy in Tehran escape by disguising them as members of a Hollywood film crew.
Thirty-two years later, Mendez's daring plan has been turned into a movie called "Argo" that will begin filming next week on the streets of Los Angeles.
The movie, starring and directed by Ben Affleck and produced by George Clooney, is one of several high-profile studio feature films shooting in L.A. this summer and fall, including "The Gangster Squad," a star-packed crime drama starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and Emma Stone in a story about the Los Angeles Police Department's efforts to keep the mafia out of L.A. in the 1940s and 1950s.
Both Warner Bros. films will be shot primarily in L.A., lifting local feature film activity in the city, which was virtually flat in the first two quarters of the year. On location movie production climbed 8% in 2010 but was still nearly half what it was a decade ago because of competition from other cities outside of California.
The state's film tax credit program has helped stem the tide, however. Indeed, each of the new Warner Bros. pictures, which have budgets of $50 million to $60 million, received approval for state film tax credits: $6.3 million for "Argo" and $11.5 million for "The Gangster Squad," according to the California Film Commission.
"These are healthy-sized features that employ a lot of our members," said Ed Duffy, business agent for Teamsters Local 399, which represents location managers, studio drivers and casting directors. "Producers are starting to look at L.A. a little bit more."
Some scenes for "Argo" — which is based on a 2007 Wired magazine article and also stars John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston — will be filmed in Turkey and Washington, D.C., but the bulk of the movie will be shot in L.A.
The production has slated 50 days of shooting in various local locations, including Ontario International Airport, which will stand in for the Tehran airport, a private residence in Hancock Park and a Veterans Affairs building in North Hills. Some filming will probably take place on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.
Chris Brigham, executive producer for "Argo," said the state tax credit was an important factor in the decision to shoot locally, as was the fact that part of movie's story took place in L.A., where the film crew ruse was plotted. Hollywood's abundance of film crew talent was also a factor in keeping the production here, Brigham said. "There's such a wealth of knowledge here that you can't find anywhere else," he said. "The film crew here is pretty much the best in the world."
"The Gangster Squad," a co-production between Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow, will begin filming in L.A. in early September. The film is based on the "L.A. Noir" series by former Los Angeles Times staff writer Paul Lieberman.
"It was budgeted for a number of locations, but we decided we could do this old style: actually shooting L.A. for L.A., " said Lisa Rawlins, Warner Bros.' senior vice president of public affairs.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. and Legendary's big-budget Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises," expected to cost at least $250 million, has been filming in Britain and Pittsburgh but will shoot at least two months in L.A. this fall.