Lights! Camera! Action!
Angelina Jolie was in trouble. The apartment had just exploded, the windows blown out into the street. The movie megastar crept along the outside ledge of the building before sneaking into a neighboring apartment, then sprinting out through the lobby to safety on the street.
Welcome to another day at 790 Riverside Drive, a Washington Heights building frequently used by film production companies to make movie magic. Jolie’s action-packed escape from the Riviera, a 199-unit Beaux Arts co-op on the corner of Riverside Drive and 157th Street, was included in the 2010 film Salt. It’s just one of many movies, television programs, and commercials filmed in the building, including Elementary, Law & Order, and Orange Is the New Black. But here’s the real star attraction: letting your building serve as a movie location can be a lucrative revenue stream for your co-op or condo.
“The income has been beneficial,” says Isabelle Wedemeyer, a board member at the Riviera who acts as point person for productions wanting to film at the building. She points out that such an unusual stream of revenue helps greatly.
Lots of Loot for a Simple Shoot
Fees for renting out apartments and building space to film producers vary depending on the type of production. An independent film with a small budget starring unknown actors will have a fraction of the money to spend on locations that a Hollywood blockbuster starring Angelina Jolie will have.
Compensation can range from $3,000 to $12,000 per day during shooting days and $1,000 to $2,000 per day for “load-in” (set up) and “wrap” (cleaning up after filming has finished) days. Bruce Robertson, a real estate broker at the Corcoran Group and a resident at neighboring 800 Riverside Drive, was paid $15,000 for use of his apartment for a week. A key factor, he says, is that the IRS taxes this income only if the apartment is rented for more than 14 days in a year.
“The Ansonia charges five times as much per day to use their lobby as we do,” says Robertson, explaining the financial advantages of using a Washington Heights building over an Upper West Side icon.
But how does a shareholder or building get in on the action – and the money? Wedemeyer explains that her board was initially apprehensive about having the building turned into a film set but voted in favor when it considered the financial benefits.
The first step is for a board to approve the idea of turning over the building to a film crew. Buildings need to prepare before making themselves known to production companies: Get approval from the residents. Find out what kind of insurance coverage you need. Boards often work at a snail’s pace but productions, especially TV shows on tight schedules, need fast answers.
Boards Greenlight Pix
“It’s not unusual for a contract to arrive on Thursday and they are prepping the location on Monday,” says Wedemeyer. “The board must have approved the concept earlier. Buildings that are interested in doing this should agree to do it first and then solicit production companies.”
Note: there is no such thing as a film crew just coming to shoot in one apartment. Productions will need access throughout the building and will also need space for actors and crew to wait until they are required on set and to store equipment. “Apartments that think they just say, ‘Yes, come and shoot here’ have another think coming,” explains Sallie Slate, who worked for more than a decade in the media relations department of the American Museum of Natural History, where she oversaw the building’s role in Night at the Museum. She now runs her own business, Sallie Slate Productions, working as a liaison between buildings and production companies.
“When a film crew comes into your space, it’s like an invading army,” Slate says. “You need to be clear about what it is you want, how much you are willing to give, how organized you are, and how committed your building is because it can be a pain in the neck. Film crews work like dogs and it can be a 14-hour day.”
Once your board has approved the building’s future use as a film set, shareholders or the board can approach location scouts, location managers, and publications like the New York Production Guide (see box, p. 24) to publicize availability. “A good location is something that is distinct, architecturally interesting, and has a lot of space,” says Slate.
Damon Gordon, a location manager for many big productions, says one of the first things he looks for in a location is access. “We are not going to be able to film in a wonderful apartment in a fifth-floor walk up,” he says. “We are nomadic companies and we travel with literally everything we need for a day. We are similar to the circus.”
If your building is chosen as a filming location, the production company will send a contract that contains basic provisions as well as some customized points covering your building and the production’s requirements. Insurance details should also be provided. .
All-in-One Tab Makes for Big Easy
While each production is different and there is no set fee for using an apartment or building, the Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting – the city agency that administers film shoots in New York City – suggests an all-inclusive fee or a rental fee plus itemized charges for electricity, water, phone, and furniture use.
Typically, a production company will pay each individual apartment owner a fee in addition to an access fee to the building for opening its doors. If filming takes place on common property, such as the lobby, another fee will be paid to the building.
Gordon adds that renting out apartments and your building won’t make you or your building rich, but it can have an impact on the bottom line. “There are a lot of savvy co-ops and condos that have reaped a windfall though the industry,” he says. “There are some buildings I have worked with that made enough money through productions that maintenance costs remained unchanged for years because we were offsetting that.”
So you have reached an agreement with the production company and the crew is due on Monday? There’s also the neighboring community to consider. The production company will secure permits from the city to film and park its production vehicles; these are the colored signs often posted in the street alerting residents about upcoming parking restrictions. .
NIMBY Effect: Critix Nix Excessive Flix
But beware: 790 and 800 Riverside Drive have been used as locations so frequently in recent years that the Office for Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting placed the area “on hiatus” after local residents complained about production vehicles taking up parking spaces.
“Inevitably, somebody is going to get upset,” says Gordon. “But, as a location manager, you do the work beforehand and take in the realities of a community. Trying to film in a very Jewish neighborhood on a Jewish holiday would be horribly rude, especially towing people’s cars when they can’t actually move them. Also, don’t block schools during school time.
“Outreach about what is going to happen in a week’s time is important,” adds Slate. “There is a push-pull. It is exciting to have film crews and it is irritating to have film crews. It provides money for the city and it is a good business for buildings to be in if they want to make money, but you have to be smart. You can have too much of everything. French bread and cheese is divine but too much of it? Yuck.