Owning a property has historically been the cornerstone of building wealth, but another way to reap a return on your investment involves an interesting side hustle: getting your real estate in show business. In the past, everything was shot on a soundstage, but now filmmakers want authentic spaces to set their motion pictures. Movies, TV shows, commercials, music videos, and other productions film in private homes, apartments, and commercial spaces. So long as the location bears some recognizable features, the property owners that rent to film productions can enjoy more than extra income and bragging rights of working on a film set, they could enjoy enormous promotional value as well.
You can probably think of a few famous lots right away, like the Bradbury Building in Chinatown, Katz’s Delicatessen in When Harry Met Sally, or Dallas City Hall in Robocop. All of these locations were existing properties that became celebrities in their own right because a production scout stumbled upon them, or the property managers contacted their local or state government’s film and television office to register their building as production-friendly. In the luckiest of circumstances, the publicity that follows box-office hits have residual effects on the locations that starred in them. For instance, the home featured in Mrs. Doubtfire had boosted the nearby property value along Steiner Street in San Francisco “by a whopping 253% compared to homes in the postcode area,” said Nisha Vaidya. Many sites have also become major tourist attractions thanks to the exposure they received in film. Lord of the Rings fans can flock to Hobbiton, Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey rakes in revenue with guided tours, and the Hook and Ladder 8 firehouse was saved from demolition because of its Ghostbusters fame.
Of course, these cases are extremely successful examples and don’t tell the whole story. So to try to find out the mechanics of a typical film rental process, we spoke with a location manager, someone who’s responsible for finding and procuring locations before production for television or film starts, for a major production company in New York City. Our source, who asked to be called “Buck,” shed some insights on the production side of property leasing for film.
Emily: Can you walk us through the process of getting a property put on the big screen?
Buck: When the script-to-screen process starts, the first thing that happens after the script has been written is that pages of the script are given out to the production studio’s location department. They are given modifiers for what kind of space is going to suit the scene’s aesthetic, things like lots of glass, ornate fixtures, certain types of views, etc. Then, the location manager looks for properties that match that description. I talk to the property managers and take pictures. Once I’ve got photos and some rough metrics, I’ll present my findings to the creative team behind the project. That’s when the team and I weigh the pros and cons of each location, and we whittle down our options. We go on another scout for those final options, sometimes with the director in tow, and then the director picks where exactly we’re going to shoot.
Then we go into something that I like to call Phase 2. Department heads of the studio come out to the location to address set dressing. The art department takes measurements of the place. Then after that we bring a letter of intent to the property manager that letter spells out days, times, any set prep we may need to do. Those are the factors that dictate terms for pricing, insurance, and contract vetting, because the amount of time you shoot at a location directly impacts the amount of money we have to pay to the property itself.
Then we hit Phase 3. If everything gets approved we go in, get the equipment ready and set the scene up, and we start shooting. Once we wrap, we need to get everything back the way we found it. If there was any accidental damage done we reimburse the property manager, but that doesn’t happen very often.
Emily: Do you look for any other factors when it comes to finding a perfect location, besides the look of it?
Buck: Generally we also look at things like parking, we’re going to need ample space for that. Accessibility to the space is also important. Then there are other logistical concerns like making sure there’s a sufficient power source for all of the equipment that we’ll be using.
Emily: What would you say is the biggest misconception surrounding your line of work?
Buck: It’s not so much a misconception about my line of work, more so about this kind of paradox of success. Once a location becomes “famous” and it’s shown up a couple of times in different shows, I won’t recommend that space to my creative team, because it makes me look like a hack. It would seem like I didn’t do my due diligence to find something unique.
Emily: So there’s a Catch-22 that comes with renting a location in the hopes that it might become famous itself?
Emily: How much do property owners get paid for renting their space?
Buck: One common scenario I deal with is a commercial property. In that case I’m dealing with a property manager, who’s looking for a quicker way to make money when they have an empty space pretty much burning a hole in their pocket, as opposed to a property broker who’s not interested in leasing the space because they’re after long-term tenants. In that case, a space that would earn $30,000 in a month if it was up and running. I can give them that much for three days of filming.
Emily: Is there a difference in criteria between renting a commercial property for a film shoot versus renting a residential property?
Buck: In a commercial property, most likely we’re looking for a space that is vacant or lightly used, like an empty floor of an office building. When it comes to shooting in a residential property, we typically want something that looks lived in.
Emily: COVID-19 protocols have emphasized working with smaller crews and experimenting with virtual and remote filming. Has this affected the types of narratives you can shoot?
Buck: You know it’s funny that you mention that. Before COVID, location had to meet the requirements for the script. If the writers typed out something that needed a super-specific setting, it was on us to find a space that would make that work. Like, here’s an example, a lot of screenwriters that write scripts set in New York City are actually living out in Los Angeles. In L.A., there’s alleyways everywhere, so a lot of writers think that it’s the same situation in New York City. In reality there are only five, and most of the time those alleyways are on what we call the “Hot List,” which is when the mayor won’t issue a permit for that location because of residential complaints. So what used to happen if we got scripts that asked for an alley was to try to manipulate the shot of a different space to look like an alley.
Now we’re sort of finding out that the pen is much easier to control, so if we can’t secure a location that fits the demands of the scene, we change the scene altogether.
Emily: This sounds standard with low-budget filmmaking, which entails a supply-side approach, are you saying that that dynamic has flipped with studio-backed productions?
Buck: Oh absolutely. Now, major studios are looking at what resources we have on hand that abide by COVID protocols and tailor the story to that. You’re always looking for an environment that you can control as much as possible.
Emily: How would a property manager go about renting a space to you to use for a shoot?
Buck: It varies state-to-state, but in New York City you can contact the Mayor’s office and go from there. Because of my union status I get access to a Google Doc that’s available for location managers, so I can see each property that gets listed.
Emily: Let’s talk about insurance. How much would a typical policy extend to the property manager should any damage occur during filming?
Buck: Industry standard is usually $2,000,000 aggregate. Sometimes I have to up the coverage for certain places like museums and such.
Emily: Do you have any last pieces of advice?
Buck: If you’re interested in offering up a building that you own as a film set, hire a representative. If you hire a location representative for your company, you’re going to drum up more money for your property, if, of course, it has any aesthetic value.
If you’re managing a property that has some aesthetic value, the additional income that a film production could provide you with might be worth considering. Production companies spend billions of dollars on locations alone each year. Plus, the promotional value can be enormous. “The film industry is unlike any other business in the world and its way of doing things can seem erratic, even strange, if you are not familiar with all of the pieces that must be put together in order to create a motion picture,” says the South Carolina Film Commission. But remember, when we sit back and enjoy a movie or an episode of a TV show, we’re only looking at the end product. We see polished edits and embellished effects, not the pandemonium of moving parts that went into filming it.