Friday, 9 October 2009

Lights, Camera, Trouble?

In response to this recent news story that many US states don't think giving tax breaks to movies is a good idea any more, I dug the story below from 2005 out of the files.

In the story linked above, the most telling line is a chamber of commerce saying; "We lost a lot of money, we had to get off the crazy train."

A similar realisation is occurring in the United Kingdom. The county of Norfolk, short of cash, has begun implementing charges to film companies for facilities that were once free.
Critics of the movie business welcome mats many US states have offered over the last decade say they don't see the longer-term economic benefits that can come from a nomadic industry such as filmmaking. This sounds like good news for my brethern in Hollywood who for years have seen runaway production.

Lights, Camera, Trouble?

How to keep the love when Hollywood comes to town.

After The Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand it kicked off a local filming boom but when Warner Bros. went there again to make The Last Samurai, New Zealand's film commissioner Jane Gilbert had to respond to complaints that the locals had since raised prices to Hollywood customers. She told businesses "people will reap the financial benefits of having Hollywood in town, but only if they treat the film industry right."

Hollywood came to the town of Taranaki because its mountain resembled the sacred Mount Fuji and it had worked hard to promote their potential for film locations to stimulate its moribund economy but not every location benefits from the arrival of 'Hollywood.

Taranaki was a virgin film location and was fortunate that its first time was with an experienced and reputable producer. However, they would have been wise to talk to the citizens of Van Buren, Arkansas USA (pop 18, 000) who fell out with producers Elliot Kastner and his step-son Cassian Elwes after the filming of TV movie Frank and Jesse starring Rob Lowe and Bill Paxton. Although that was back in 1994, the lessons learned by them apply to anywhere Hollywood sets up camp.

Arkansas is the most impoverished state of the world's richest country and it aggressively pursued Hollywood. One of its draws was the Arkansas State Capitol building in Little Rock which is an almost exact double for the US Capitol in Washington and Van Buren's National Historic District is crammed with restored 19th-Century buildings. Another bonus for Hollywood was that wages are low and the state government took a 'can do' attitude to filmmakers' requests. Eventually producers came calling. The mini-series The Blue and the Grey and the movie Biloxi Blues filmed in Van Buren. They paid their bills on time and shops and restaurants were compensated when filming affected trade. Arkansas reckoned Hollywood had brought USD two million annually to the state. Small beer perhaps, but important when the average annual income in Arkansas barely tops USD 10,000.

Everyone in Van Buren was happy with Hollywood until Frank and Jesse rode into town. The TV movie about the outlaw James brothers was financed by the independent Lone Rider Productions and released in a negative pickup deal by second-string distributor Trimark. At first the grumbles were about minor things. The 'per-diem' (payment in lieu of proper meals and housing) given to the crew hired in Arkansas was less than originally promised and rather than pay inconvenienced businesses or homeowners directly, the producers made verbal promises to make donations to local charities.

Unexpected delays put the USD 3.5 million production 1.5 million over budget. When Frank and Jesse rode off into the sunset, many local vendors were left unpaid. A car leasing company was owed USD 19,000, the construction company that provided earth to hide the tarmac on the roads was owed 14,000 and a security company was owed 2,000. Demands for payment were referred to Trimark as Lone Rider claimed that the distributor was now responsible. The anger was about more than money. The film crew had driven nails into the wood panelled walls and carvings inside the historic opera house after barring the liaison person from the set.

"The frustration began when it took me 20 days to get anyone to return my calls," said William Buck, director of the Arkansas Motion Picture Office after fielding the complaints of the Van Buren merchants. After a lot of adverse publicity, Trimark eventually settled the USD 105,000 in unpaid bills incurred by Lone Rider Productions. "Even though we feel these problems were not Trimark's responsibility, we wanted to bring some resolve," said Andrew Hersh, Trimark's senior vice-president of production.

In the old days of the Wild West when a circus came to town, the sheriff would remove the nut from the wheel of the showman's wagon and only return it once all the bills had been settled, hence the show business expression “covering your nut'”. A little understanding of how Hollywood works may prevent unreasonable and erroneous expectations between the towns and the clowns.

I must have spent a total of several years filming on location and although  much of “what goes on location stays on location” has to be honoured, I can tell you the impact of an average Hollywood production (USD 2 to 20 million budget) shot on location will boost the local economy in many ways.

Along with location fees; expenditure on office space, hotel rooms and rental cars will be a large portion of the budget. If 'extras' (background actors) are required then they will be cast with local people and Victorian costume dramas, westerns and Civil War period films might need large numbers of animals and stables.

Lumber, paint, plaster, sand and cement are purchased in vast quantities for set construction. Construction machinery and access equipment will be hired locally as well. The film's caterers usually bring their own equipment but buy supplies in the local markets. A typical film has 150 mouths to feed every day and the cast and crew are used to eating well. Local security guards for vehicles and locations will be employed. Protection for the movie's stars will come from specialist companies or will be their own.

The producer's office will purchase office supplies and rent telephones, fax machines, copiers and walkie-talkies. They may want to hire knowledgeable local people as secretaries or receptionists and the location manager may put a local liaison person on the payroll. Desks, chairs and file cabinets will also be leased or purchased second-hand.

At the end of a long working day, the day the cast and crew will want to relax and get something to eat away from the production. Film crews work hard and play hard. They will spend plenty of money if their unsocial hours can be accommodated. Fast food restaurants that deliver will find eager customers as crews quickly tire of the hotel's kitchen.

Laundry is the bane of every person working on location. Finding a fast full-service laundry is their first priority on arrival and they won't be happy doing a month's laundry at typical hotel prices. The costumer will also be looking for an overnight laundry and dry cleaner as each actor's wardrobe has to be cleaned every day. Dry cleaners with studio contracts do very nicely, thank you.

If a crew is going to stay in one location for more than a month or so, they may rent their own accommodation. Film crews are like tribes and often the same people work from movie to movie together. Renting a luxury serviced apartment gives them more space, privacy from the other crew, better amenities and allows their family to visit. The producer will pay the crew the local hotel room rate and the crew can pocket the difference.

Shops benefit if they are open on the crew's one day off a week. So do tourist attractions, recreational charter services, golf courses and health spas.

Filmmaking requires many specialist skills. Local labour might not be hired anywhere near the camera unless they are already experienced or qualified but casual labour is required (labour unions permitting) on film productions as drivers, set construction and set dressing labour, seamstresses, animal handlers, catering and other roles depending on the scale and scope of the production.

Every production is different but the Unit Production Manager (the executive signing the checks) has a fairly standard shopping list of services that they will want to source locally [see footer]. Other departments also have large budgets to spend locally. The set construction department and the set decorating department (collectively called the art department) make a large impact buying materials, hiring equipment, renting, buying props and set dressings and paying wages.

The economic benefits of filming can also come years after the production has left. Association with Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Dances With Wolves has added lustre to many tourist attractions. Visitors to Lyme Park at Disley in Cheshire rose 175% after Colin Firth swim in the pond for the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. The British Tourist Authority's best selling guide is its Movie Map, detailing 200 UK filming locations.

Not all movie tourists are welcome. At first Burkittsville in Maryland discouraged the hordes of Blair Witch hunters but now guided tours are conducted of the films locations. The same happened with The Wicker Man for Dumfries and Galloway. The relatively slim chance of any film's commercial success should preclude counting the benefits of film tourism before giving breaks to filmmakers.

But anybody putting a beady eye on Hollywood's pocketbook should keep in mind that the fees to use locations and the cost of permits, traffic control, parking enforcement etc. and local wages and the cost of travel are widely variable components of a production's budget. Certainly in the USA, these costs will be compared to filming in or near the studio and these are the critical factor, rather than the cinematic veracity, that makes the decision to go to a distant location. Few landscapes are so unique that a production has to film there. As pioneer filmmaker King Vidor said, "A tree is a tree" and so he filmed all his East Coast locations in Los Angeles' Griffith Park.

Black Park Country Park, adjacent to Pinewood Studios, in Buckinghamshire has a similar, seemingly limitless versatility. Toronto constantly doubles for New York City because of tax breaks and the weakness of the Canadian dollar. Producers don't care if the audience has seen it all before. The formations of Vasquez Rocks outside Los Angeles lies within the distance studio employees can travel before reimbursement is due (the studio zone) and has stood in for Arizona or alien planets so many times that in "Austin Powers' it was a cinematic in-joke.

The Last Samurai scouted on three continents before settling on Taranaki after Mount Fuji was deemed too sacred and Japan too urbanised and too expensive. Stars and crew alike don't really like to leave home for months at a time. Eventually David Duchnovy told the X-Files, who pioneered the explosion of TV production in Vancouver, Canada either they shoot in LA or he leaves the series. The producer will schmooze the local bigwigs with promises they'll meet all the stars because going on location has to make a difference to the bottom line, no matter how much they say they admire the scenery.

Film commissioners have a thankless job. Dammed if they do and dammed if they don't, they walk a fine line between offering inducements to productions and selling out their region completely. Their best efforts and expensive helicopter time can all be wasted by their fellow bureaucrats. A Trimark/Lions Gate prison drama Civil Brand began pre-production in Yanceyville, North Carolina but suddenly packed up and moved away so a local soundstage complex lost a lengthy booking and local technicians fell “between two chairs” having turned down other jobs. The producers had counted on using one of the state's many empty prisons under a state law that all redundant facilities must be available for filming. Before the producers had 'locked' their locations, somebody sent the script directly to the Department of Corrections. Although there was no specific reference to the DoC and the setting and story were fictional, the prison bureaucrats decided the story did not reflect their good image and refused permission. Production switched overnight to the same prison used for The Green Mile in Nashville, Tennessee.

The downsides of welcoming a movie crew into your town are small but should be addressed quickly as an accumulation of complaints can swell into anger and become political headaches. In some US cities, well-heeled neighbourhood associations are pressing city councils to ban or restrict location filming while their state politicians are promoting it.

Although starstruck people abandoning their partners and families for the charms of movie stars does happen and can't be helped, some of the populace may resent an invasion by a very large and noisy army of outsiders. To be fair, some people in Hollywood do live up to the stereotypes as loud, vain and obnoxious and behave as if they have 'cinematic immunity' but people from all walks of life can be boorish and rude away from home, just attend any convention for proof. An effort should be made via the local media to explain the production companies' purpose, duration of stay and to highlight the benefits to the community. The local media will readily grasp the opportunity for a showbusiness story.

A modest production can involve twenty trucks and more than 100 people. It is extraordinarily difficult to move this behemoth from location to location with any speed (except in the case of the Blair Witch Project, where the cast and crew amounted to six people and shooting lasted three days). After actor availability, the number of 'company moves', is the single most critical factor in determining the shooting schedule and choice of general location. In charge of managing the shooting unit is the First Assistant Director who relies on the Location Manager to find locations with two concerns uppermost in their mind: where do we go to the toilet and where do we eat? These factors and vehicle access determine the viability of a location before artistic considerations.

The 'First A.D.' will want a place to put the support vehicles and dressing rooms (the unit base) as close as possible to the camera set-up because shuttling crew and actors between the two wastes time and time is money. In an urban location, if a car park or any other hard standing can be found cheaply nearby, that is preferred to putting everything in a city street as the latter requires more permits and posting of parking restrictions in advance, making the shooting schedule less flexible and causing inconvenience for the public. A win-win break for film productions is for local government to make public property available for nominal fees for the production base camp.

Realising the great difficulty of parking in Vancouver, production equipment companies developed smaller and more flexible vehicles than are used in California but winkling stars out of giant motorhomes is a problem. I recall Arnold Schwarzenegger (when he was an actor) required an enormous fifth-wheel trailer plus a 40' semi as a personal gym. Mel Gibson has one for himself and another for his family and tribe of children. Tom Hanks has his own modest Airstream with little clapperboard stickers of every film and location he has been to marked like a fighter plane. Contract riders often demand nobody is to have a trailer bigger than the star, except for Johnny Depp, who demands that nobody has a trailer smaller than his.

Filming interiors on location tends to cause complaints about film productions because of the likelihood of damage; knocks in plaster, wooden or marble floors scratched by equipment, soft furnishings scorched by lighting, nails put into walls, and fixtures removed but not replaced. A hazard or nuisance in public areas is the danger of people tripping over cables or equipment, damage to parked vehicles and litter. Complaints may arise over noise late at night and inconvenient road closures and parking suspensions affecting nearby businesses. Location owners may have problems with production companies over late or non payment, dishonoured checks and changed or cancelled bookings of locations "pencilled in".

Every location and film production is unique but in most problems can be avoided with clearer understanding between the production and the location of what is required before filming begins. Once determined, it is an absolute certainty that these will change. A liaison person with the authority to act for location owners should be on-site during shooting and it is helpful if they are familiar with the process of filmmaking. Many times location owners have agreed to hire their location and then objected when they realise the extent of the demands. By then contracts are exchanged, the trucks are parked and it's just too late to do anything.

If physical changes to the location need to be made, such as removing anachronistic features like modern fixtures or satellite dishes, then these must be discussed in advance between the location and the art department. It's a good idea not to believe anybody who says "we won't change a thing". Despite the grandeur of a historic building, which is the pride of the community, the production company may need to make several changes to it. The least that can happen is once the camera and lights are set up inside, anything behind the camera that is out of shot has to be moved out to make room for everyone to stand behind it or move the camera. This is the job of the 'Property Master' and their assistants, who will put it all back again when the camera turns around for the reverse angles of the scene. If several scenes are shot in the same set, this will happen several times.

Set Decorators often have to change a location's window treatments, much to the disappointment of the location's owner. The Director of Photography will want to place lights outside, on platforms if it is a second floor, to illuminate the interior scene. The curtains or blinds will have to be suitable both for the setting and the desired results. Cinematography is painting with light and every window seen in a film is the opportunity to convey subtle cues and convey atmosphere and mood. Both parties to the location contract should not forget to ask "what about the windows?"

Fragile interiors can be protected by laying down thick cardboard on the floor and rosin paper on stairs. Even a no-budget student production can find flattened boxes from the supermarket.

If the Set Decorator has to hang a picture on a wall where there isn't an existing nail or hook and the location can't accept that a painter will patch and make good a nailhole afterwards, the Set Dresser can use a few tricks of the trade. One is to use monofilament fishing line (or .001 gauge wire) and put a fine finish nail in the gap between the ceiling moulding and the wall and hang the object from that bracing it with Blu-Tack (and in California you can obtain stronger stuff called earthquake putty). Dulled down with matte spray, the monofilament is invisible to the camera. In really difficult situations they might affix the object to false sections of hardboard (masonite) painted or papered to match the walls and stuck up with industrial quantities of Blu-Tack. These things can be done if discussed in advance but are near impossible to do on the spot.

Public performance regulations in most countries require cables to be run inside special gullies in public areas and this should apply to any film location. These are supplied by all lighting rental firms. Most 'Key Grips' purchase several boxes of rubber crutch tips for the legs of lighting equipment to protect floors from being scratched.

Litter collection on a film set is the responsibility of the 'Craft Service' person who sets up bins around the location and arranges for their disposal. Such arrangements should be written into the contract between the location and the company.

Utmost priority should be given to the means to settle swiftly any damage claims between the location and the production. A video survey of the location scout is usually made, mostly for reference purposes but this has saved the bacon of several producers when unscrupulous location owners made fraudulent claims.

Sensitivity should be shown if the subject of the film is likely to offend. Given the number of times I’ve seen it cause a problem; do not show nudity or gore in public and be careful about religion. After Easter churchgoers had to pass a gallows left outside during the holidays by The Handmaids Tale, no film crew has been inside the stunning Duke University Chapel in North Carolina again. In the Philippines, the makers of The Year of Living Dangerously were in fear of their lives from Islamic fundamentalists filming the story set in Indonesia. The producers of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets protected religious sensibilities by covering up the images of any saints seen in the stained glass windows of Gloucester Cathedral.

In 1999 a Slovakian film director and an Indian producer were arrested on charges that they had hurt religious feeling while shooting for their Anglo-Indian co-production The Return of the Thief of Baghdad on location near Khultabad in India. A riot broke out after a copy of the Koran was desecrated unintentionally while being used as a prop. The holy book was being used as dressing in a temple set and it had appeared to look too new and was kicking off light so the director 'distressed' it with a cup of tea. The temple caretaker, who was a Moslem, saw this and went ballistic, raising the alarm amongst the crowd who had gathered to see the American and European cast - which had included Jason Connery and Richard Keil - alongside Bollywood stars. Several European film technicians reported running for their lives whilst the film company's trucks were pelted with stones and some vehicles were set on fire. The production's financing subsequently collapsed and the British and American cast and crew were left stranded. The film has never been completed.

There is not much a movie crew can do about noise apart from being considerate and keeping it to what is absolutely necessary. Film generators are silenced already because the one thing that can't be fixed afterwards is a poor sound track. Trucks and lift gates are noisy and lots of heavy equipment has to be loaded and unloaded before and after each day's shooting which is often at an anti-social hour. The most problems occur when the noise is unexpected. It should be a condition of granting a filming permit, and it's plainly good practise, that a residential location is leafleted to advise of the times of filming and street closures and that parking suspensions and diversions are clearly signposted in advance. Certain areas in Los Angeles and Vancouver have imposed moratoriums limiting the number of days of film production on their streets. However every Location Manager has war stories of enterprising homeowners near these overused locations starting up their lawnmowers and holding out for a payoff whenever cameras showed up.

Every vendor who gives credit to a movie production company should understand is that the company was probably set up just for the film and will be dissolved when all obligations have been met. The name of a major studio may be behind it but legally only the production company is liable for the debts. This is not done to defraud anyone but to limit liability in copyright litigation. The movie industry has its own credit reporting agency and vendors within the industry routinely ask for a letter from the parent studio accepting liability for the producer's debts if they have not established a credit rating. Most productions have an accountant on location to pay local vendors but the payroll is usually handled by specialist firms in big cities. It is wise to submit invoices immediately as the production office may have closed by the end of the month and the invoice will have to go to the studio where another accountant, who doesn't know you from Adam, has to get the signature of the Production Manager to release funds.

Another document every vendor of hired goods or locations should ask for is a certificate of insurance naming them in case of loss or damages. A legitimate producer will have reams of them and there shouldn't be any excuse for not giving one.

Filmmakers are already constrained by a great number of regulations intended for another purpose it seems. Anybody can go out into the wild and light a campfire but point a camera at it and you'll need a standby fireman, special effects technician, a water truck and a permit. Bait a fishing hook with a live worm on camera and you'd better have a representative of the Humane Society on set to make sure the worms didn't suffer unnecessarily but no amount of legislation will prevent accidents, idiocy or dishonesty. The best protection from trouble with Hollywood is education and all professional film crews understand that it serves no purpose to 'burn' a location as their own livelihood suffers most.

The production shopping list

A.C./heating rental (portable air conditioning or heating for offices and locations)

Access equipment (hoists, ladders, platforms)

Air charter (Helicopter/fixed wing for location scouting. Camera platforms tend to be specialist vendors).

Airlines (local charter and scheduled).

Ambulances (standby/med-evac and air transport)

Boat charter

Builders supplies/lumber yards

Bus charter

Car rental (self drive)

Car/truck wash


Cleaning (office cleaning, location street sweeping)

Communications (Beepers/Cell phones/Mobiles/Fax)

Computer Supplies

Copier rental and supplies

Courier (UPS, Fedex, bicycle, et al)

Drafting Equipment and Art supplies.

Dry Cleaners/Laundry (overnight for costumes and service wash for personal clothing)

EMT/First Aider (standby on set)

Extras casting (specialist but many states have local vendors)

Fast Food Delivery

Fire department (safety standby and rain effects)

Fire safety (extinguisher rental and location certification)


Fuel (vehicles and generators)

Furniture rental (offices and accommodation)


Gym (temp memberships for cast and crew)

Hardware store

Hospital (specialist and general)


Limo service (chauffeurs)


Movie theatre

Notary Public

Office space

Office supplies

One-hour photo


Plant hire (excavators, fork lifts)

Police/security (road closures, crowd control depending on local statutes)

Post office

Printer/graphics studio (signage)

Public library

Radios (walkie talkies are usually part of the sound equipment package but extras can be needed).

Recycling (these are Hollywood people after all)

Sanitation (portable toilets and rubbish collection)

Security (locations and equipment)

Teachers (for school age cast members)

Telephone systems

Tents/Marquee hire

Tool hire

Travel agent (tend to be specialists)

Waste disposal (set building materials)

Water (bottled and office coolers)

Weather service (hourly accurate local forecasts)

Production Vehicles

Camera truck

Cast motorhomes/trailers

Catering truck

Dining bus or tent

First aid car/ambulance

Fuel truck

Generator truck/trailer

Grip truck

Honey Wagon or portable toilets

Lighting truck

Location Manager car

Makeup trailer/truck

Production motorhome/trailer

Props truck


Set Dressing truck

Set P.A. (runner) car

Shuttle bus(es)

Sound Dept van

Spfx truck

Wardrobe truck/trailer

Water truck

Generally personal vehicles are banned from locations and a crew parking area and a shuttle bus should be provided.

© Nat Bocking

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