When Jon Favreau began taking free swing-dance lessons at the Derby, little did the retro club’s owner imagine that her bar would one day become indelibly linked to “Swingers,” a movie that was then stirring inside Favreau’s head.
“There are people who wouldn’t have known about the Derby until “Swingers” came out,” says owner Tammi Gower of the Los Feliz club, which was one of L.A.’s original Brown Derby restaurants in a previous incarnation. “Now we get calls all the time from people asking if the movie was made here.”
“Swingers” featured Derby mainstay band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and filmed — occasionally in-focus — during open hours with a bare-bones crew. But often shooting in a venue requires a full-blown production, which provides revenue as well as promotes the club’s surroundings.
Filming goes on at several Los Angeles venues, from Fais Do Do to the El Rey to the Greek. Downtown’s Mayan serves as a popular spot for commercials. And the Sunset Strip hosts two battling clubs best known for taping their performances.
“The initial vision for Billboard Live was to create an entertainment venue that was more than live music and more than a restaurant and dining experience,” says Adam Bleibtreu, who was tapped from the WB Network to become Billboard Live’s VP of advertising and intermedia.
“We sat down with Sony as a strategic partner, and really developed a production and post-production facility within the physical structure of our venues,” says Bleibtreu. The club (which will be a year old Aug. 5) videotapes each performance, sends the signal to 38 projection sources inside the club and potentially onto the Internet (as well as the Jumbotron, the video billboard which serves as the club’s marquee). “The plan was and is: There isn’t a bad seat in the house.
“The good fortune was that the Gazzarri site was available,” Bleibtreu says of the landmark location where Billboard Live erected its flagship club. The limitation of the old Gazzarri site was its small size. “I prefer the term intimate,” Bleibtreu says. “But we’re rated at just over 400 people. That puts us in the Troubadour size, bigger than the Viper Room, and obviously smaller than that ‘tin shack’ down the street.”
Bleibtreu is referring to Billboard’s main competition, the House of Blues, which opened its doors in May 1994 and is located in the heart of the Strip. Designed by Isaac Tigrett (of Hard Rock Cafe fame), L.A.’s HoB is the third such venue (after Harvard Square in Cambridge and the French Quarter in New Orleans). Chicago and Myrtle Beach followed.
Co-produced with Warner Bros., the “Live From the House of Blues” series (featuring various performances) appeared on the Turner network for one season in 1994-95. Talks are now under way to bring it back onto the airwaves. But filming in a venue is no easy task.
“It’s fairly expensive,” says HoB senior production manager David Wells of shows that require additional lighting. “Without factoring in talent costs,” Wells says, “it probably costs between $100,000-200,000, depending on the scope of the event.”
Myrtle Beach’s House of Blues has been designed more for filming; parking complications and the lack of a backstage make the L.A. house relatively cumbersome for shoots. Working with Sun Microsystems, the local HoB has, however, beefed up its new media capabilities. “Each club will have 15-20 robotic cameras installed,” says Marc Schiller, VP of New Media. The heavy bandwidth links between the different clubs will allow cyber viewing of other HoB shows. “There’s no need to go up on the bird. Instead we will use phone lines.”
This is the same plan for Billboard Live. “If you go to the Greek, Tina Turner has two huge video projection screens. So if you’re sitting anywhere beyond 20 rows, you’re looking at the screen, not her,” says Bleibtreu. By comparison, the Billboard Live facility was designed for optimum sight-lines from every spot.
“If you’re standing in the back of our venue, you can look down at your feet at the 10 monitors on the floor,” Bleibtreu continues. The club makes money by selling advertising on the Jumbotron, and artists are provided with videotapes of their show. “I like to think those monitors are better served when the band’s not playing and we have alternate forms of programming. I think it augments the performance because artists bring ancillary videotapes to play.”
Derby owner Tammi Gower believes “Swingers’ ” popularity as a video rental should bring in even more clientele to her club. “It couldn’t be in a better place in the film,” says Gower on her club’s appearance in the finale of Favreau’s hip romance. “It’s where the guy got the girl.”
Gower feels little regret that she didn’t charge the cash-strapped filmmakers for using her club, although she had to boot them out for putting a rabbit on the bar. But they’re welcome back. “Vince Vaughn comes in here all the time. Recently he came in with Janeane Garofalo,” says Gower. “He’s a nice guy, but not as good a dancer as Jon Favreau.”