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Hollywood Shuffle

There are eight million stories in the naked city – and some of them could bring your co-op or condo some revenue and a bit of showbiz cachet with little effort. Inconvenience, yes, but effort? Not much.

New York City locations are unique, so it’s not surprising to find feature films, TV movies, episodic television, commercials, and music/fashion videos all shooting here. While it’s mostly on the streets or at studios like Silvercup in Queens or the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, filmmakers who want that only-in-New-Yawk-hey-you-talkin’-ta-me ambience often opt to shoot in actual New York City apartments. It’s gotten so that at least two high-end realty firms have divisions that specialize just in getting their clients’ properties onscreen – for over $10,000 a day.

For the most part, it’s all been surprisingly casual. According to Dick Pollak, board president of the 50-unit 404 Riverside Drive co-op – where parts of Ragtime, TV’s Law & Order, You’ve Got Mail, and “a couple of Woody Allen films, I can’t remember which ones” were shot – it works like this: a location scout “comes and puts a notice in the lobby saying [a film company] is looking for an apartment where they can shoot scenes for a film, and then somebody in the building says, ‘Yes. We’re willing to let you use our apartment.’ If [the filmmakers] like the apartment, then they negotiate with the building.” While even a small shoot involves “a great deal of traffic and tie-up in the building, in the freight elevator, people coming in and out, [and] upheaval, the tradeoff is we get money for the repair and renovations fund.”

That’s the equation, all right. Is it one you’d equate with your own building, or does the thought of Hollywood in your home conjure images of soiled carpet, broken vases, arc lights at all hours, no parking spaces, jealous neighbors, and, inevitably, an offscreen cat getting its tailed stepped on and going “YEOWRRRR!!”? But if you put policies in place and keep your eyes open and not starstruck, then the temporary and maybe one-time-only inconvenience may be worth it.

The Big Picture

OK, here come some numbers, to give some perspective. There were 23,321 shooting days in New York City in 2004, the most recent year for which the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting has figures. (If you have, say, a TV show, two movies, a music video, and three commercials filming in a given day, that adds up to seven shooting days.) The number points up, way up – it’s more than any other year in the more than dozen years since the city began tracking. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that TV, film, and commercial production contributed $5 billion in direct spending and more than 70,000 jobs in New York City – in 1999, when there were only about 22,000 shooting days.

“The presence of this important industry in our city means that New Yorkers have the opportunity to host productions in their residences,” says Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting.

Not all of these things are big-budget TV and film shoots, but there are enough of those that you can make deals that are both lucrative for you and cost-effective for them. Remember that building sets in a studio isn’t cheap, so a real New York lobby or apartment, even when factoring in the cost of moving a huge production there for a few days, works out fine both economically and creatively or else filmmakers wouldn’t bother. The mayor’s office offers residents a step-by-step guide, How to Make Your Home a Star, at www.nyc.gov/film (although this backgrounder doesn’t specifically address co-ops or condos).

“If it’s an independent film or somebody who’s a step up from a film student, try and cut them a break,” suggests producer Frank Mosca of the production company Harrington Talents. “The more hospitable you make it, the more filmmaking there’ll be in New York. Of course, if it’s a big studio picture,” he half-jokes, “take ’em for everything.”

For a typical Hollywood feature, an average New York City apartment generally commands in the mid-four-figures a day for the owner and the low thousands for the building. For lofts or high-end luxury flats with a view, that roughly $5K figure is “a very, very conservative number,” says Laura Wagner of Sotheby’s International Realty. Her company is one of two, with Douglas Elliman, listed on the mayor’s film office website as having dedicated location-shooting divisions. “The fees,” she says, “can go up to $20,000 a day.”

For You’ve Got Mail, which featured one brief scene in a tenth-floor apartment at 404 Riverside Drive, the production paid the building and the shareholder whose unit was used thousands of dollars for four days of filming: two days to prepare, one day to shoot, and one day to dismantle.

The Last Boy Scout

How do you get in on that? Unless you have a high-end property and a Laura Wagner pitching it, you’ll need to catch the attention of filmmaking professionals called location scouts or else list yourself with a broker at a location service.

The former generally freelance for production companies on a project-by-project basis. They maintain files of aesthetically diverse and easy-to-deal-with locations. The latter is essentially a real-estate brokerage where you list your lobby, rooftop garden, or apartment. It is paid a commission when an apartment gets used.

Location scout Mark Bodnar of Where’bouts.com, whose pictures include Men in Black and Spike Lee’s Girl 6, suggests that boards be wary of location companies whose primary business is real estate. “A realtor is only interested in the back end,” he argues. “A film company trying to get a location will try to look as benign and small and easygoing as possible, and so a realtor is gonna play down [to apartment owners] what a film shoot actually is like. If you’re dealing with boards, the most important thing is honesty.”

That means, he says, making sure the board and the owner know that a film shoot “is a circus, there are a lot of people involved, and there’s more than just shooting: places are needed for the trucks, for the generators, a place for the cast and the crew to eat lunch” and much more.
“People often don’t really know what to expect,” says location scout Robert Chemtob, “and often scouts are a little guilty of not quite telling them everything. I don’t say 10 people [will be there] and [then] 40 people show up.” Unprepared homeowners and boards, he says, are often “blown away by all the equipment a film production brings.”

The process begins when a scout finds two or three places that look right for a particular shoot. Then he arranges a “director’s scout,” a scouting trip with himself, the director, and the producer. After the director decides which place he likes best, Bodnar says, “Then I tell the homeowner this is what we want to do, and go through all the logistics and sign the contracts.” After that comes a “tech scout,” a scouting trip involving the logistical crews – the heads of the art and other departments, electricians, and grips who’ll be carrying and moving things into place, etc. “They’ll look for things like, if it’s a third floor, will we need [to rent] a cherry picker? Is there a fire escape? Where will we store the equipment?”

Basic Instinct

Before that tech scout can happen, however, the owner and the board have to learn what the production will do, generally, and what it needs. While most crews uphold highly professional standards – stories abound of production companies actually leaving homes and gardens in better shape afterwards than they were when they came in – a building should take nothing for granted, and get everything it can in writing.

What, for instance? The basics are:

• Contact information for the film company and related companies/studio
• Number of people in the crew
• Dates and times of the shoot, including, specifically, night shoots (when extremely bright lights may keep other apartment-dwellers awake)
• Number of vehicles to be used, and the dates and times, which may extend beyond the above, for when vehicles will be taking up your street, and, significantly,
• Insurance information. Make sure the production company lists you and your property as “additional insured,” and have the board’s attorney obtain a copy of the policy. According to the mayor’s film office, a standard film location policy insures up to $1 million liability
• A knowledgeable attorney will also confirm that the production notifies the New York Police Department movie/TV unit if any weapons effects are to be used, and the fire department for any fire effects
• The homeowner and a board representative should ask for a “walk- through” with relevant crewmembers who will point out what environmental changes will be done where – Will a rooftop garden be dug up? Will walls be painted a different color? – and when and to what standards will these changes be reversed when shooting is finished?

The Negotiator

If you think pursuing film, television, and TV-commercial shoots can be a good occasional source of revenue, then it makes sense to cover all the above in a standard board policy. Pollak’s co-op, like some other media-savvy buildings in the city, has one in place that make dealing with filmmakers and shareholders alike a relatively painless and profitable process.

“The policy specifies a fee for shoot days, and for set-up and strike [i.e. dismantle the set] days,” Pollak says. “Those fees differ. And there are a certain number of hours of shooting, and a deadline for when they have to be out of the building,” among other standard conditions.
“Two negotiations take place,” he notes. “The filmmakers negotiate with the apartment-owner to shoot in the apartment, and then [the filmmakers] negotiate with the building separately.” In the case of Pollak’s 404 Riverside Drive, companies negotiate with building manager Barry Benami of Argo Management.

And speaking of management, the production company generally has a location manager – who may be the same person as the location scout – to handle the day-to-day logistics and to work with a building liaison that you supply.

“Usually that’s the super,” says Chemtob, who goes on to give an example of what a film company should not do: “On one shoot in my own building [with which he was not involved professionally], my super worked hour after hour, and after a week of this, they gave him fifty or a hundred bucks. I called the location manager and said, ‘That’s not right.’”

It’s also impractical. Explains Bodnar: “We end up ‘burning’ a location,” creating enmity that prevents future film productions from returning. “The location manager’s job,” says Chemtob, “is both to see that the production gets what it needs, and that the location is happy.”
Now, this isn’t legal advice, but the mayor’s film office suggests that your one-time deal – and by extension, your building’s policy – include the following provisions, to quote from its website:

“Advise the production company of the permission process and any applicable waiting periods. Payment schedule: request full or partial payment prior to commencement of shooting, and designate form of payment. It is recommended that you request a deposit for damages.

“List any restrictions on the use of your property. List any restrictions on the access to your property, (e.g., limited hours of operation for passenger/freight elevator[s].) Determine whether you or the production company is responsible for paying electrical fees.

“Include information about maintenance schedules that the production must work around. Ensure that the placement of lights will not damage any property. Pre-approve the use of any material that may damage your walls, doors, beams or moldings, such as nails, tape, pins or clamps. Floor covering should be provided to protect surfaces. Remove valuables and breakables.

“If you are displaced, hotel accommodations should be provided.

“Stipulate that the production is responsible for cleanup and trash removal.”

You may be making money, but remember, there are downsides. Gerard J. Picaso, president of Gerard J. Picaso Inc., a management firm, says that when the 1996 movie The Mirror Has Two Faces, directed by and starring Barbra Streisand, filmed at the entrance and in the lobby of 505 West End Avenue, at West 84th Street in Manhattan, “The co-op got $3,000 for a two-day shoot. There was some inconvenience for the residents,” Picaso recalls, “but there was also a feeling of being a part of Hollywood.”

And a profitable part at that: Streisand, a notorious perfectionist, “decided she wanted to re-shoot, and so they came back and did another two days. And then another. At one point it had gotten to be winter, and so the crew had to glue leaves onto the trees” to match the foliage-full earlier takes. “I think the building must have been paid $40,000 overall,” he estimates.

Despite that, Picaso says, the residents have never wanted to do it again. “People were having to go out the service elevator, delivery-people couldn’t come to the front door, the sidewalk was blocked, they were doing night shoots with lights, and [people in] the neighboring buildings were complaining and yelling out their windows” since they were being inconvenienced as well but without getting paid. “Plus,” he notes, “the crew is there to do a job, and your building is not their primary concern. Yes, they were careful; yes, they cleaned up any garbage and mess. But it’s still a lot of equipment and people, and so there’s wear and tear on the building.”
Still, for most, once all that’s done and shooting has ended, you’ll have a story for cocktail parties, some money in the bank, and a cache that may help future sales. But whatever you do, don’t get Swept Away by The Hollywood Shuffle.

“I was scouting a Whit Stillman movie, The Last Days of Disco,” remembers Bodnar, “and we were looking at an empty co-op apartment. We were talking to the super about using it, and we asked, ‘Is it possible to knock down some of these walls?’ We’d just met the guy, and he goes, ‘Right now?’ He thought we had sledgehammers in our bag!”

They did end up knocking some walls down later, he says – with negotiations completed, fees paid, repair arrangements made, and everybody going home happy…including the apartment’s neighbors and the slightly more-well-off cooperative corporation.

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