'Apprentice' found more work in L.A.

From traffic jams to permit jams, location shooting proved a challenge

Last week, FilmL.A. reported a decline in Los Angeles-area feature film and commercial production in 2006. But overall location filming still registered a slight increase thanks to a 53% spike in reality TV work. A whopping 41% of all TV production came from reality shows, ranging from such series as the CW's "Beauty and the Geek" to VH1's "The Surreal Life" to MTV's "Pimp My Ride."

One show epitomizing the boom is NBC's Donald Trump starrer "The Apprentice," which moved from the Big Apple to the City of Angels for its sixth season, rechristening itself "The Apprentice: Los Angeles." However, while reality TV is pumping up the local economy, the Los Angeles area is not always ready to accommodate the genre's particular demands.

Looking for a vitamin B shot in terms of ratings, "Apprentice" shot episodes all over the Southland, making stops along the way at such businesses as grocery chain Ralphs and fast-food chain El Pollo Loco.

"New York is not the only big-business capital of the world," "Apprentice" exec producer Jay Bienstock said of the decision to head west. "In its own right, it's a huge place of business, and we thought by moving, we could show that Donald has (business all over the country)."

But the production soon found that shooting in Los Angeles was not exactly a walk in Central Park. In fact, walking was not even on the agenda.

"New York is a commuter city. You can jump on subway, a train, a cab. But in L.A., it's all cars," Bienstock said. "We found ourselves stuck in traffic all the time. Once, Donald called me up from his car and said, 'Hey we just drove two miles, and it took me an hour! Is it always like this?' And I said, Yes, it's always like this. The hardest thing was getting around from point A to point B."

For the Donald, maybe. The production's more vexing challenges were navigating the labyrinth of permits required by a bureaucracy that played havoc with logistics, especially for the locations department. The complex permitting structure was a surprise to the New Yorkers, who were accustomed to the one-stop shop they have at New York Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, which issues permits for all five boroughs.

"In L.A., you have different jurisdictions," said Shelly Mittal, a locations coordinator who worked on seasons 4 and 5 of "Apprentice" in New York before coming to Los Angeles this season. "So if you're filming in West Hollywood, you would go through their film office. If you were in Beverly Hills, you would go through their office. If you were in Santa Monica … ."

The show's locations team, led by Los Angeles-based Alasdair Boyd, who has worked on such features as "S.W.A.T." and "Bewitched," found that most permitting is set up for larger film and TV units, ones that are have many trailers and trucks and are in one location for a long time.

"They are not so set up to deal with where you have two passenger vans, a camera on sticks, shooting for one place for 15 minutes or half an hour and then going somewhere else," Boyd said. "It's a very light footprint compared to the normal film process where you are normally in one place for a day or at least half a day."

In a typical episode of "Apprentice," two teams of aspiring business tycoons are assigned entrepreneurial tasks, which they must execute against a ticking clock. Sometimes, the teams even divide into subgroups; then they must all report to the obligatory boardroom ceremony where someone is fired.

Finding two mansions — one to house Trump's boardroom and one for the contestants to live in — proved to be the easy part. It was when it came time to film the execution of the tasks that the production found it had to be nimble. "Staying one jump ahead of these groups was an interesting experience," Boyd said.

For instance, the production would start with a particular challenge: The teams would be told they had to market and sell honey at Ralphs. Then the team members would fan out to get posters, find a bear costume or create a honeybee graphic — ideas they came up with on the spot and only had one day to execute.

The production quickly found which cities, districts and departments were filmmaker friendly. They included Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, as well as Los Angeles International Airport and FilmL.A.

But some cities in the region threatened to bury the production in extra crew, by assigning a police officer and fire safety officer.

"If you're driving through a city and the guys decide to stop and get a burger, strictly speaking you need to permit that and get a fire safety officer and a police officer," Boyd said. "Clearly, that is ludicrous under some circumstances."

The show found itself missing some of New York's amenities: The city offers its permits for free and also offers "shooting tags" — permits that allow productions to park in areas for free and not get tickets. Around Los Angeles, the "Apprentice" filming crews often found themselves dropping off the cast and then circling to find a parking space.

"From a locations perspective, we were spending more money on permits than we did in New York," Mittal said.

Another issue the "Apprentice" shoot came up against was the various anti-street vending ordinances, which were stricter than those in New York, where vendors can be found on almost any corner selling just about anything.

Reality TV, while offering mostly nonunion work, with lower pay and longer hours, does appear to be here to stay. And given that it is the format buoying Los Angeles' location shoots, L.A. and its surrounding communities might have to adjust their filming regulations to suit the needs of the reality shows.

"I would love to see them adjust their permitting procedures to reflect reality TV shows' needs," Boyd says. "For us to continue filming in Los Angeles, we have to integrate the needs of the film community and the community as a whole. No one wants to kill the goose that lays the golden egg."

Said FilmL.A. president Steve MacDonald: "There are 88 cities in the county, so it is a challenge. If the 88 cities can have similar requirements and similar rules and regulations, that would go a long way toward helping make it more convenient for the industry."