H’w’d hits the panic button

Safe rooms are popping up at home, on the lot

These are boom times for paranoia. The murder rate is up, the stock market is down. Accountants lie, priests prey. A new word, “SARS,” threatens to revive an old phrase, “global pandemic.” The anthrax attacker is still out there. North Korea has a bomb. And oh yes, there’s a vast cement basin in Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood.

It’s enough to make anyone long for a refuge, a place “they” can’t get into, whoever “they” might be.

So it’s no wonder that safe rooms, also known as panic rooms, are more popular than ever — and that they’ve quietly become the latest perk for Hollywood’s elite.

Several contractors in the Los Angeles area install safe rooms in homes and offices, and two leading safe-room builders tell Variety these rooms increasingly are being installed at major studio lots.

“Some have gone to that extent, because the people they have on contract are requiring it,” says Bill Rigdon of Building Consensus, a contractor with long experience installing safe rooms.

Rigdon says above-the-line talent are making on-lot safe rooms a deal point, especially if they’re going to be shooting for a long period of time.

“Even some of the big directors are asking for them, because they’ve been threatened,” says Rigdon, naming two specific lots where he’s sure safe rooms have been installed.

Rigdon adds, “If it wasn’t in their (studios’) budget a few years ago, now it’s in their budget.”

Gary Paster of American Saferoom Door Co., another experienced safe-room contractor, also is seeing safe rooms get some heat at the studios, “mostly in corporate suites,” he says. “Some studios have it as a general feature.”

Most of these corporate safe rooms, he says, are meant as protection against disgruntled employees or gunmen, “but pretty much everyone who’s asking now is getting chemical and biological protection.”

Few studios or percenteries responded to queries about whether safe-rooms were finding their way into A-listers’ deals. Those who did respond denied ever having heard of such a thing.

But then, Rigdon says, that’s no surprise. Owners aren’t supposed to talk about their safe rooms — why tip off the bad guys? — and nobody likes to talk much about these worst-case-scenario precautions.

“A lot of times they don’t want things to be public,” Rigdon says, “because it brings that paranoia.”

If paranoia sounds like exactly the right word to describe all this, keep in mind that safe rooms are not really a new idea. The old-fashioned Midwestern storm cellar is a direct ancestor of today’s panic room, as was the classic Cold War bomb shelter.

Today’s updated, high-tech safe room comes in many shapes and sizes, from a reinforced closet to an underground concrete suite, but it comes in two basic flavors.

The first is the “Panic Room” movie approach, an above-ground, intruder-resistant space meant to provide a temporary safe haven from burglars, stalkers and the like until help arrives. These were the fashion in home security during the ’90s, when Cold War fears were eclipsed by home-invasion anxiety.

Many upscale homes still have such safe rooms, to protect both lives and valuables, but these panic rooms don’t do much against terrorism, explosives or weapons of mass destruction.

For that kind of security, skip Jodie Foster’s all-too-vulnerable above-ground space and head for the Christopher Walken/Brendan Fraser “Blast From the Past” approach: an underground bunker, preferably blast- and/or radiation-resistant, with full life-support systems.

In other words, a bomb shelter on steroids.

Yes, in the age of anthrax and Al Qaeda, the bomb shelter is back. And like the Volkswagon Beetle, it’s bigger and better than ever.

“Two years ago, no one would have thought they wanted a door lead-lined for radiation,” Rigdon says. “Now they’re demanding that.”

Some have gone still farther.

One of Rigdon’s entertainment industry clients — perhaps a “24” watcher? — recently ordered an atomic-blast-proof safe room. This raises the question of how these people expect to be inside the shelter, with the door sealed, when the nuke goes off. Are they planning to sleep there?

“I imagine they are, when there are certain things on the news,” Rigdon says. “If you were watching CNN and they put us on the highest level of terror alert… .”

Such a shelter doesn’t come cheap, of course.

With reinforced concrete walls and doors, radiation shielding, air filtration systems, a generator and sanitary systems, it could easily cost $500,000. And that’s without the cost of digging a basement beneath a manse in earthquake-prone Los Angeles.

To be sure, Hollywood doesn’t have a monopoly on this level of fear.

On the contrary, Paster says: The most extensive setups he’s done have not been for industry folk. “The high end, the most expensive rooms, have been for either corporate heads or foreign dignitaries,” he explains. “In entertainment, the emphasis is still on home intrusion but they’re getting chemical and biological as an add-on.”

Not everyone needs or wants the kind of security an underground shelter provides, anyway.

Safe-room contractors begin by meeting with their client — or the client’s security consultant — for a “threat assessment.”

Actors, it turns out, often want protection against stalkers, while corporate CEOs fear kidnapping. Others worry about protecting their families from larger threats such as terrorism or civil unrest.

For those with relatively modest security needs, a reinforced door on a large closet or master bathroom may be enough. A more advanced setup would have a heavy steel mesh intruder-resistant cage or bullet-resistant Kevlar built into the walls. (At different thicknesses, it protects against a range from handguns to assault rifles.) The next step up involves surveillance systems. Those with especially large houses can even order multiple safe rooms, with secret passages connecting them.

Any safe room must provide a way to call for help, even if it’s just a cell phone. Some have ham or police-band radios, in case the phone system fails. That means adding a power supply; some install self-contained diesel generators that can run the room for weeks.

Protection from chemical and biological agents is the current trend, even for those who have invested in smaller, above-ground safe rooms.

“It is not the main emphasis,” Paster says. “But if they’re doing a room, they want that as an added feature. That’s $3,000 to $5,000 extra.”

That doesn’t mean sealing the room with some high-tech version of duct tape and plastic sheeting. By adding a filtration system and an air pump, the room can keep a slightly positive air pressure, which makes sure air always flows out through any cracks and no noxious agents waft in. The ventilation has to have a hand crank, too, to run the pump if the power fails.

At the high end, it makes little sense to spend several hundred thousand dollars on a room that will sit empty. So an underground safe room often doubles as a wine cellar or media room for its well-heeled owners.

It’s a logical combination; media rooms and wine cellars, like bomb shelters, need to be isolated and windowless. The additional accoutrements of a safe room, such as stored food and surveillance systems, can be discreetly hidden from visitors, while a single switch can shut the reinforced doors and seal the room from the outside world.

Combining the safe room and media room solves another problem, too: keeping one’s mind occupied. Once ensconced in a shelter, it’s important to have something else to do besides meditating on the madness and misery that may lurk outside, and turning the hand crank on a ventilation system can only do so much to relieve the tension.

With a generator, a home theater and a closetful of DVDs, that problem is solved, at least in part. Keeping children occupied during such a stay is another matter; one forward-thinking L.A. homeowner even installed a climbing wall in his safe room.

Of course, the notion of on-lot safe rooms at studio lots raises the question of who knows about them, and who gets access. Will they become a privilege of rank, like the executive washroom? (“No one below vice president,” joked one former creative exec, “and no one from marketing.”)

But unlike most Hollywood status symbols, safe rooms don’t work as conspicuous consumption. Homeowners are supposed to keep them secret, not brag about them to friends, while execs might well find that office underlings make a lot more noise about being denied access to a potentially life-saving shelter than about being passed over for an invite to a hot Oscar party.

(Then again, Hollywood being Hollywood, maybe not.)

So safe rooms are likely to stay a hidden perk for the foreseeable future. But they’re also likely to stay in demand, and to continue to morph to fit the times, as long as Hollywood players feel insecure. And let’s face it, has Hollywood seen a time, ever, when players didn’t feel insecure?

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