For years, flyers from movie and television location scouts turned up in Alan Bennett’s mailbox. And for years, Bennett and his wife, Melanie Oser, reflexively tossed them. The couple had no interest in serving up their Dutch Colonial as a setting for a TV series or feature film.
But at some point it occurred to them that perhaps they were being a mite dismissive. Really, at the very least, they should consider the possibilities.
“Houses cost a lot of money to maintain, and I thought maybe we could get some of that money back,” said Bennett, 65, a musician. “So we let a location scout take some pictures.”
The couple’s home, where they have lived since 1985, wasn’t quite right for the project then in the works, but the photographs were tucked into a file at a production office for future consideration.
Lo and behold, five years ago, the house, which sits at the end of a cul-de-sac in the West Midwood section of Brooklyn, was cast as the Bridgeport, Connecticut, residence of Julia Bowman, a principal character on the Amazon Prime series “Sneaky Pete.” It appeared in five episodes over three seasons before production moved to Los Angeles, where a replica of the interior was built on a soundstage.
“For us, it was fun, easy money,” Bennett said of the five-figure sum he and his wife collected. “They make it worth doing if you don’t mind letting them do what they want.”
Seventy television shows were shot in New York City during the 2018-19 season, according to the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, a sharp increase from 2013-14, when the number was only 29. And there have been some 300 movie shoots in the city annually in the past few years.
Producers and directors whose story lines call for gritty hovels, classic capes, bungalows, grand beachfront properties and every sort of residence in between have an incentive to make do with the housing stock in the five boroughs. A shoot that’s outside “the zone” — more than 30 miles from Columbus Circle as the crow flies — generally means travel-time payments for union workers.
“It can get expensive,” said Keith Adams, the location manager for the third season of the HBO period drama “The Deuce.”
The high volume of production makes these flush times for New York City residents whose homes have what it takes. Often, that means generously sized rooms, high ceilings, big windows, good light and few if no stairs to climb. Because of all the equipment involved, walk-ups tend to be nonstarters.
“Location fees have gone through the roof in the last decade,” Adams said. “It’s crazy what amounts people ask for and what amounts they get. On a tight schedule, you’re over a barrel at a certain point, and the negotiating power switches to the property owner.”
Compensation can start at $1,500 and run as high as $50,000 per episode, depending on a production company’s budget and how long it intends to stay on a client’s property. But the level of disruption can be similarly stratospheric — if not equal to that of the owners of the Albuquerque house that played Walter White’s home on “Breaking Bad;” they’ve had to contend with fans throwing pizzas on their roof to commemorate an event from the show’s second season.)
Consider this: As many as 100 crew members crowd the premises. Furniture, artwork and other personal possessions are frequently moved out for the duration of the shoot (although Bennett and Oser can point to a “Sneaky Pete” scene that included some of their very own mugs). Walls are sometime painted, as are exteriors (such was the case when Patrice Stambovsky and her husband, Jeffrey, allowed parts of their Victorian house in Nyack, New York, to be used as the residence of Susan Sarandon’s character in the 1998 tear-jerker “Stepmom.”)
Trucks filled the driveway for the “Sneaky Pete” filming at Bennett and Oser’s house in Brooklyn; a compressor took up residence out front. Because the director had allergies, the family cat had to be boarded — at Amazon’s expense — every time the show made itself at home, typically for three days and nights.
When the schedule called for an all-night shoot, Bennett and Oser decided they wanted to be boarded elsewhere too, a courtesy frequently extended to location hosts. They were put up at the Gramercy Park Hotel, “and they paid for us to go out to eat, too,” Bennett said.
The terraced Union Square penthouse that served as the home of hedge-fund executive Taylor Mason, played by Asia Kate Dillon, during Seasons 2 and 4 of the Showtime series “Billions” was just perfect — except that the elevator opened directly into the apartment.
Why was this a problem? It got in the way of the drama for a scene involving John Malkovich’s Russian billionaire character, Grigor Andolov. “They wanted John to knock on the door, so they built a doorway and made a fake wood door,” said Robert Fisch, the owner of the apartment and an entrepreneur. “My wife and I were having a little bit of a heart attack about this.”
Fisch was perhaps soothed by the sum he was paid for two episodes — in the neighborhood of $100,000, he said.
A location team does a certain amount of “cold-scouting,” like ringing doorbells and pushing flyers through mail slots. They also exchange tips and photos with colleagues from other production units, count on the power of word-of-mouth and rely on their memories.
“It’s like casting,” said Mark Lake, the location manager for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” “You might go with a certain actor, but you remember another actor from the audition and you bring him in for something else. If an apartment we see isn’t right for a particular scene, we make a note on the file that it would be good for X situation.”
In some instances, location scouts turn to agencies like Location Department, which represents more than 2,000 properties in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
“We are looking for a dramatic, old townhouse with gravitas to film as part of our finale episode,” a location manager wrote in a brief to Location Department’s director, Kate Collings-Post. “In the show, the home belongs to a Russian oligarch, who intends to renovate the house once he’s purchased the neighboring buildings so as to aggregate them into a palace.”
Among the 230 townhouse possibilities on the company’s website is a “modern contemporary” Gramercy Park property with floor-to-ceiling windows and a terrace, and a recently renovated, 25-foot-wide Greek Revival townhouse in Cobble Hill with an open floor plan that “gives it the feel of a loft.” The third floor “boasts a dark and moody family room with a library wall and skylight.”
Just as certain parents overstate the intellectual, athletic or artistic capabilities of their children, certain homeowners may be a bit misguided about the desirability of their homes for a location shoot.
“They tell me how beautiful their backyard is,” said Debbie Regan, the owner of Debbie Regan Locations, which books properties for movies, television shows and special events. “They think that their koi pond is what a location scout is coming for.”
But it is true, Regan said, “that TV shows and movies aren’t necessarily looking for a wood-paneled library or the most beautiful kitchen. Sometimes they want a vintage kitchen where the appliances haven’t been changed since 1970.”
The big motivator for homeowners is the payout. “More often than not people like the money because rarely am I making the check out to a charity,” said Regan. But there are other lures: vanity, bragging rights and a great story to tell at cocktail parties. Some simply want to be part of a show they love. Mark Lake, of “Law & Order: SVU,” tells of being in the residence of a “very high-net-worth individual. He told me that he and his family were big fans of the show and he thought his kids would get a big kick out of having us shoot there.”
One should certainly not underestimate the power of a location scout to charm homeowners.
“The one who came to see us talked about how we would really be in showbiz,” said Andy Arons, who, in summer 2018, opened his family’s townhouse in the West Village to the producers of the Netflix movie “Otherhood.”
“My wife and I saw it as a good way to bring in extra income,” added Arons, a founder of the boutique grocery chain Gourmet Garage. A bonus was getting to meet one of the stars, Felicity Huffman.
Still, despite the pleasing addition to a bank account and the brush with the big time, an at-home location shoot is definitely not for everyone. “If you get stressed when someone comes to fix something under the sink, you are not cut out for this,” Regan said.
Savvy homeowners are clear about the terms of engagement. “Everything is negotiable,” Arons said. The Stambovskys, for example, made the exterior and the grounds of their house available for the “Stepmom” production but only a small slice of the interior.
The bathrooms were off-limits to cast and crew. “They ended up building a bathroom for Julia Roberts in the basement. She doesn’t use a porta-potty,” said Patrice Stambovsky who, in 2011, sold the house, which had also been used as a location for the 2010 feature “The Bounty Hunter,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler. The property recently went on the market again, and promotional material touts its glittery past.
Location managers are sympathetic to jittery homeowners — up to a point. “We try to treat people with respect and try to make it as good an experience as possible,” said Adams of “The Deuce.” “But you made this decision, you rented out your property, you have to allow us to do our work. It’s a business arrangement, and I’m not going to be walked over.”
That goes double for Emile L’Eplattenier. A year ago, the Netflix series “Iron Fist” was preparing to use his block in Bushwick for a night shoot. To add atmospherics, the creative team wanted the residents of some of the street-facing lofts to keep the lights on from 9 p.m. until the 3 a.m. wrap.
One of those apartments belonged to L’Eplattenier, the managing editor of TheClose.com, a real estate strategy website. He and a production assistant agreed on a fee of $500 to be handed over on the day of the shoot, preferably before the cameras started rolling.
An annoyed L’Eplattenier was still waiting for the payment as shooting got underway. His ire increased when he went to get dinner and returned home, the journey slowed by lights, cameras, cables and the man who stood directly — and belligerently — in front of the door to L’Eplattenier’s building. Shouting ensued and the set quieted.
Just then, the production assistant and a colleague, all smiles, hurried over to the man in front of L’Eplattenier’s building — as it happened, a stunt man — urged him to move and ushered L’Eplattenier through his door.
He demanded his agreed-upon sum. They demurred, at which point he walked upstairs to his apartment, waited until filming resumed and began flashing his lights on and off, Morse code style.
The check arrived in five minutes.