Downtown L.A. is versatile on camera

Backdrops: From gritty warehouses to modern towers

Downtown Los Angeles is Hollywood’s favorite off-lot location. Every day (and night) of the week, there’s a movie, series or commercial shooting in the 65-block central business district.

The allure? Backdrops that range from gritty industrial warehouses to 19th-century facades to modern, glass-walled towers.

Sprinkled throughout are iconic, oft-filmed locations like the Bradbury Building, the arched Sixth Street Bridge and Frank Gehry’s curvaceous Disney Hall. With a little set dressing, downtown can also pass for most any city and frequently does. It’s Gotham in “CSI: NY,” Chicago in Warner Bros.’ “License to Wed” and an urban battlefield for warring robots in “Transformers.”

“For years, around 4:30 or 5 p.m., downtown would roll up the carpets. The old historic core — Spring Street — was wide open, no one lived there and the industry got used to having it as a back lot,” points out Geoffrey Smith, director of community relations for Film L.A., the nonprofit entity responsible for overseeing location permits in the city.

Annually, 14% of those permits are issued for downtown Los Angeles. On average, 75 permits are issued daily and 140 during pilot season — resulting in a possible 10 to 20 downtown productions each day.

However, downtown’s build-out of new residential units, geared toward the upscale renter and buyer, means a new era for production. In 1999, the city passed an adaptive reuse ordinance that allowed for the renovation of empty and often derelict buildings into residential use.

More than 7,000 new residences are expected to augment an additional 7,500 units in various stages of construction, adding to downtown’s estimated 29,000 current residents.

This means production crews — accustomed to doing their own thing, whether finding ample parking, setting up production base camps in empty lots, closing streets, employing low-flying helicopters or simulating gunplay — have needed to become sensitive to new neighbors.

“As new buildings come online every couple months, lights, noises and time (of setup and breakdown) all have impacts that they used to not have,” says Film L.A.’s president, Steve MacDonald.

“It’s not the Wild West anymore,” adds Tom Gilmore, partner of Gilmore Associates, a landlord in the Old Bank District.

To date, the historic corner of Fourth and Main streets has seen 60 productions this year. To this end, Gilmore says making “urban spaces livable and workable and usable as a back lot” is the big issue.

“The gentrification of downtown is a wonderful thing for the city but a terrible thing for motion picture industry,” says veteran location manager Tim Hillman (“License to Wed”). “Previously, we could go downtown on the weekend and find a ghost town. Now formerly abandoned buildings have $750,000 apartments. We have to adjust our way of thinking.”

One important change: The cost of production downtown has outpaced inflation. Four to five years ago, Hillman budgeted daily location fees at $22,000-$25,000, including permit fees, parking and street closures. Over the past year, Hillman’s budgets have been in the $36,000-$38,000 range, some days closer to $50,000.

One line item that has steadily increased: gratuities, which euphemistically cover the dollar amounts given to residents and businesses inconvenienced by productions.

In 2006, residents rallied after a helicopter buzzed overhead repeatedly on a Sunday at midnight. “It was the straw that broke the collective camel’s back,” contends Dave Bullock, downtown resident and one of the area’s many bloggers.

“We don’t expect filming to stop,” Bullock says. “That’s part of the allure of downtown, and for the most part, productions are respectful.”

But a major sore point with residents is that Film L.A. (and the city) cannot punish or fine those production companies that ignore the conditions of their permits.

In 2004, City Council member Jan Perry, whose district encompasses much of downtown, proposed special filming conditions for the Arts District. Perry believes that residents are not opposed to filming; many have industry-related jobs. But there must be a balance.

“I’m pretty sure people who live down here aren’t looking for a traditional suburban lifestyle,” Perry says. At the very least, consistent notice from filmmakers is essential.

In April, Film L.A. issued new guidelines for downtown shoots, including requirements for an onsite Film L.A. monitor during activity in the Old Bank District.

“At the end of the day,” Gilmore says, “they have to film in a responsible manner.”

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