Lending lodging for shoots a lucrative proposition

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Although the real estate market remains softer than it was a year ago -- or, as the optimists put it, in a state of "correction" -- not everyone is feeling the pinch. In fact, some are even profiting from it. Those savvy homeowners know that offering up their properties for movie, TV and commercial shoots can mean tens of thousands of dollars for a week's work -- which, thanks to an IRS loophole, is tax-free (as are all shoots if they're 14 or fewer days).

With houses sitting on the market longer (sometimes unoccupied by owners who've bought a new home and are unable to sell their old one), properties are primed to welcome in film and TV crews. Chris Ursitti, co-owner of Hollywood Locations, a company that serves as a matchmaker between location scouts and property owners, also dabbles in real estate. "I've built my own homes, and I have used them for filming," he says. "Last year, one of my homes was shot for a pilot, and I got about $50,000 for a week of work. Now, I'm building another house in the (Pacific) Palisades on spec, and if that doesn't sell, I'm going to market it through my company to see if I can get a show."

Sean Harrington, locations marketing director of Madison Locations, an online company that also markets homes to scouts, became involved in the business when he recognized that the real estate market was about to take a swing in the wrong direction. "I knew where the market was going to go," says Harrington, a former mortgage product developer at a large bank. "Thanks to the 1% interest loan, people who couldn't afford houses bought them, and then they couldn't keep up."

Harrington's timing couldn't have been better, at least as far as he was concerned: Three months ago, he says, there were 300,000 foreclosures in the U.S., and some of his clients in the Los Angeles area are so leveraged that they "don't own a brick in their house," he says. "You can get a second job, or you can market your house as a location. I don't know of any way to make more money on it."

Following is a look at the ins and outs of making a house the star of the show.

An in-demand actor might land a couple of features a year. An in-demand house, on the other hand, can jump from film to film without a pause, never has "off" days and doesn't express opinions about how a scene might be improved. Even better, the work comes to it.

There's certainly plenty of work to be had. Los Angeles' film industry has long relied on using in-town locations (despite the ongoing problem of runaway production), and this year alone, films such as Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls," Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Good German," Sony's "The Holiday," Focus Features' "Hollywoodland," 518 Media's "Inland Empire" and Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine" have prominently featured local residences.

As with the rest of the film industry, the upside to being popular is obvious: There's a lot of money involved. "One of our client's homes was featured in Will Ferrell's (Universal release) 'Kicking & Screaming,'" says David Hatfield, manager of Cast Locations, his family-run business that matches location scouts with homeowners. "The homeowner made $60,000 for that seven-day shoot, plus more for prep days and strike days. Then, about six months later, they needed to do reshoots, so they came back, did another couple of days plus prep and strike, and the owners made an additional $40,000." And since up to 14 days of renting out one's house is tax-free, that resulted in a total net of more than $100,000.

"Sunshine" location manager Christopher Miller knows of one homeowner whose property is so large it's listed under two addresses; in that owner's case, up to 28 days are tax-free. "That's how that owner makes a living," he says.

That homeowner might be in the minority, but it's not unheard of to be able to give up a day job if one's house is doing the work. "I have customers who make their entire incomes off filming," Harrington says. "We have one house that makes $110,000 a year. It was the house that was used in (the 1979-86 sitcom) 'Benson,' showing the front and the drive, and it's been used in over 100 productions. In Pasadena alone, there were 800 film permits issued last year, and (the 'Benson' house) gets $10,000 a day."

Standard rates tend to be a bit lower. "A lot of the popular houses go from $5,000-$7,000 a day, and then we take 30%," Hatfield says, noting that the 30% fee includes brokering the deal between the filmmakers and homeowner, holding a deposit against damages, preparing the contracts and providing a supervisor who is on-site during filming. "We have someone from our company who goes out even on the prep day, and they're there until the wrap, when everything is put back where it was found," he adds.

Miller estimates that the houses he scouts in nicer areas earn $5,000-$10,000 a day, with an average home in the San Fernando Valley going for $2,500-$5,000. Hollywood Locations' Ursitti made $50,000 when he allowed filming in his own home for a TV pilot.

For homeowners willing to go it alone and save themselves some cash, Madison offers people the opportunity to list their homes online -- gratis -- and broker the deals themselves. "My feeling is, production companies already have location managers, and people have generally already done real estate transactions, so they know about negotiating," Harrington says. "If they want us to rep it and take 30%, we will, but they can always call us with questions."

Perhaps the greatest service these companies provide isn't the matchmaking but the ongoing counseling they offer during the occasionally strained relationship that can result from a film crew of 60-plus people moving into a residence, albeit temporarily. "If you're a film virgin and you've never had filming done in your home, I tell people to prepare for the biggest party you've ever thrown, multiply it by five, and then have it go on for 13 straight hours," Miller says. "A lot of people think, 'Oh, it's no big deal,' but it is. The traffic of people walking in and out makes dust and dirt, and they bump into stuff wearing big belts with things attached. We're basically a moving business, and we're all over the place. Anytime I'm in a location for more than a week, I pretty much budget for a new lawn for the owners."

Alasdair Boyd, a location manager who served as a scout for "Holiday," says that he would "without a doubt" be willing to offer up his own home for filming "if it's a studio feature or a TV network and you have a contract with a damage deposit upfront. If they want your house, you're in a great position. It's not a giveaway, because you'll have to do a little work to make it all happen correctly, but it's good. If, on the other hand, it's a commercial, you'll want a damage deposit and payment upfront; because of the nature of it, it can be a little more fly-by-night. And if it's a music video, you say, 'Thank you, but no thank you.'"

Still, those who have rented out their homes say the damage is generally negligible, and occasionally, the crew might actually improve the property. "I knew what to expect when they shot the pilot in my house since I live with it every day," Ursitti says. "So, I basically said to my wife, 'Why don't you take the kids and stay in a hotel, and I'll handle it?'" (The production paid for the hotel bill, as it often will.) "In

general, by the time the crew is done, it always looks worse than it is. The clean-up crews are always right behind the shooting crews, and they clean up the greens while the painters do their thing. These are craftsman who get paid a lot of money," Ursitti continues, "and they will really do a lot for you if you're nice to them. Sometimes arbitrarily, the house will be in better shape because they paint the walls or put up moldings, and if you like it, you can keep them. They're willing to help you."

"I've had 18 commercials and two movies filmed in my house in three years," says Sherry Pechet, who has lived in her 3,000-square-foot home in Tarzana for 46 years. The house, which was recently used by director David Fincher to film Paramount's upcoming "Zodiac," is outfitted with what Pechet calls "pristine 1960s furniture," and she has yet to lose a piece of it to filming. "Please, I've lived through earthquakes. I was around during World War II," she says. "If they break a piece of crystal, it's only a thing. And while they've tracked in dirt or drilled a hole in the ceiling, they've also painted walls for me. They've done so many nice things. Crews have told me that some people freak out, saying, 'Don't touch this, don't touch that,' but then why are they having them in their houses?"

That do-as-you-will attitude, according to locations scouts and location-service owners, is as much a reason for the frequent use of Pechet's residence as her large kitchen -- because like with everything else in Los Angeles, word gets around. "A producer friend of mine was doing a big commercial in a house that was floor-to-ceiling glass," Miller says, "and two days before the shoot, the owner said, 'Every single piece of glass, inside and out, needs to be cleaned when you're done.' My friend thought, 'That's a $24,000 job and hardly normal wear and tear. We're outta here.'"

"Crews really want people with good attitudes," Ursitti seconds. "You have to understand that location managers definitely talk about their locations, and they have their network. If the house is a nightmare to shoot and you don't make their lives easier, they'll never bring a show back there."

Difficult neighbors also can dampen enthusiasm for using a house as a location, even though they often are compensated with a fee. When "Hollywoodland" was filming the exterior of a home in Hancock Park, "there was a guy across the street who didn't want us to film past 10 p.m.," location manager S. Todd Christensen remembers. "I had a permit to film until midnight, but he wouldn't sign it, and when we showed up, he had put up political signs in his front yard, and he had painters come to start grinding the paint off the front of his house."

But when filming goes off without a hitch, homeowners can have an additional benefit that goes beyond a burst of pride and a deposit into their checking account: Depending on the property and how often it is used, earning a reputation as a desirable site can increase a home's value. "A TV show would have significant value in direct proportion to the popularity and longevity of the show," says Coldwell Banker's Ernie

Carswell, president of the luxury real estate firm the Carswell Collection. "For a movie shoot or appearance in film, depending on the pop culture popularity and the visibility of the house used, it could also have a positive impact on the value, although less so than a long-standing television show's impact."

And during an arguably soft real estate market like today's, that can translate into sales. "These value influences are mostly for increased marketing exposure when the property goes for sale," Carswell says. "It fuels recognition, which, in turn, can create a swifter -- therefore higher -- sale." Adds Harrington: "If you have a house that gets three to four films a year, that's added income, and if you're into continuing with it, you can net an extra $20,000-$30,000 a year. Remember, this is a very film-savvy town, and people get it."

But for homeowners like Pechet, the fact that her house might be worth more than it was before it became a filming destination is beside the point. "I'm a frustrated actress from a thousand years back," says Pechet, who entertained troops during WWII. "I always say to the directors, 'Are you sure there isn't a part for me?' When they were here filming (the low-budget indie feature) 'Greetings From Earth,' the director (Kim Porter) said, 'She's so nice, we're going to let her ride on the bus with (the film's star) Mariel (Hemingway),' so I get a credit: 'lady on a bus.'

"When David Fincher was here filming 'Zodiac,'" Pechet adds with a laugh, "I said, 'I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.' He said there wasn't a part for me, and I said, 'Not even playing a body?'"

MORE REAL ESTATE COVERAGE:
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Screening rooms: Rules for location shoots
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