First in a series
EXCLUSIVE: Downtown developer Tom Gilmore was irate. “What’s this goddamn thing here I had to pay for?” he fumed. It was noontime, June 16, and L.A.’s powerful downtown developer stood on the corner of 4th and Main Street accosting a FilmLA monitor as a crew arrived. The monitor tried to assure Gilmore that the commercial shoot would be fast and there’d be no disruption to his businesses, but Gilmore wasn’t buying it.
“I know what you’ve done for the neighborhood,” the monitor said as the crew set up to grab a quick shot outside Pete’s Café and Bar, one of Gilmore’s restaurants. “And I’m grateful. You know I’m grateful.”
“I appreciate that and I’m not mad at you,” Gilmore said, lowering his voice slightly amid the clamor of lunch-hour traffic. “I’m expressing my pissed-off-ness that this thing got OK’d today.”
“This thing” was a Just For Men TV spot in the Old Bank District, which is Gilmore’s turf. Almost singlehandedly, he’d turned it from Skid Row-adjacent to a thriving area of shops, restaurants and residential lofts. Gilmore Associates, widely credited with spearheading the residential boom in downtown Los Angeles, owns numerous properties down there: the stately old Farmers and Merchants Bank; the 12-story Continental and six-story Hellman buildings, which were converted into lofts; an elegant old Catholic church that he turned into a premiere events site; and the historic San Fernando building, with 70 loft-style apartments anchored by Pete’s Café and Bäco Mercat on the ground floor.
A city street runs through the district — a street Gilmore, to his unending irritation, doesn’t own and can’t control. It’s a popular spot for filmmakers, one of the few places in L.A. that can convincingly double for older cities like New York or Chicago. More than 150 days of filming are shot there every year. Gilmore can make any one of them tough on properly permitted filmmakers, and on that June day, that’s just what he was doing.
“I am gonna do what I gotta do to make this not such a pretty little place,” Gilmore told the monitor in a tape-recorded conversation obtained by Deadline, “because the only reason you’re using it is cuz we made it such a pretty little place.” Minutes later, Gilmore had his men lean ladders in the doorway of the San Fernando and hang yellow caution tape in the potted trees outside Pete’s Café, ruining the planned shots.
The producers had paid FilmLA more than $1,600 in permit fees, but Gilmore wanted them to pay him, too. His location agent, Richard Wynn, had sent the shoot’s location manager, Jeff McSpadden, a contract and a letter demanding $12,000 for the right to film in the street and on the sidewalk outside the café — both public spaces.
“Los Angeles is known as the extortion capital of the world for the film industry,” LA’s deputy Film Czar Rajiv Dalal recently told the Los Angeles City Council. It’s a reputation the city didn’t earn overnight; shakedowns of filmmakers have been going on for decades. In 2010, just a few months after he was named Los Angeles Police Chief, Charlie Beck sent a memo to the Board of Police Commissioners outlining the perennial problem. “These monetary demands are separate from the legitimate negotiations between film locations and private property owners to film on private property,” he wrote. “Rather, these are illegitimate demands by business and property owners related to filming that is entirely on City property.”
City government — including the LAPD, City Council and the City Attorney’s office — is making a concerted effort to clamp down these practices, and Gilmore Associates is reportedly at the top of their list of targets. City officials hope that the long-awaited passage of tax incentives in Sacramento will bring more filming back to LA, and they want to make sure that the city is film-friendly when that happens.
“Keeping film and TV production in Los Angeles is an urgent priority for our city,” City Councilman Paul Krekorian, chair of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Film and TV Production Jobs, told Deadline. “I’ve heard horror stories from location managers who suffer extortion at the hands of someone looking to make a buck off a film shoot. They threaten to disrupt the shoot if they don’t get a payoff. We need to take a hard line against that kind of criminal behavior.”
“I agree with Councilman Krekorian,” Gilmore told Deadline. “Extortion, criminal behavior, and law-breaking with regard to filming should not be tolerated.” Gilmore, who sees himself as both film-friendly and as a protector of downtown businesses and residents, says it’s control, not money, that he wants.
“Everybody thinks it is about fucking money,” Gilmore told Eric Jones that day in June. “It’s not. It’s about controlling an environment. I don’t give a shit, to be perfectly honest with you; you give me $500,000, $5,000, or $500, I don’t care. What I care is that I have control of the process so that I don’t fuck up my business 300 days a year when they’re filming…We’re not playing games here. If anybody’s interrupted here or if this causes any trouble we will make this very not fun to do.”
A few minutes after Gilmore left the corner, his workmen began hanging yellow caution tape in the trees. Photos obtained by Deadline from the FilmLA office under the Public Records Act shows the yellow caution tape hanging from the trees, and workmen’s ladders leaning in the doorway of the San Fernando to ruin the shot. (See the photos above.)
Gilmore told Deadline that the tape was hung in the trees because the production’s claim it would not disrupt business at Pete’s Café and Bäco Mercat restaurant was not true. “Saturday…brunch…outside patio…Pete’s and Bäco…what were they thinking?”
Gilmore maintains that the real problem with that shoot was that FilmLA had issued it a “grid permit,” which Gilmore says “enables crews to shoot throughout an entire neighborhood without any concern for businesses, residents, or property owners.” He said that he spoke recently with FilmLA president Paul Audley about those permits, and that Audley “recognized they were a problem and needed to be better controlled. Contrary to the beliefs of some location managers, we are constantly in touch with FilmLA and the City in order to avoid miscommunication and confrontation. Some location managers simply don’t want to be encumbered in any way. If they negatively impact my neighborhood, that will always be a problem.”
For Gilmore and others who live downtown, the constant filming can make living there comparable to living near a construction site, only with lights and cameras rolling. “I think it’s hard for some people, politicians and film location folks, to understand that this is our home,” he told Deadline. “The Old Bank District is home to over a thousand people. Imagine having someone come up to the curb of your house for 175 days a year with lights, cameras, extras, food catering trucks, generators and all the rest that goes with filming, never actually standing on your lawn, but there every day, asking you not to touch your house or even come and go without making sure you’re not in their shot.”
“This not a money issue, no matter how they try to paint it,” Gilmore insists. “We would do fine without it. It’s about an ability to mitigate the constant impact of filming.”
Gilmore’s location agent Wynn, who represents many downtown businesses in their dealings with the film industry, told Deadline that “the real issue here is that neither FilmLA nor any other City department has the power to enforce permits or limit activities of producers while they are on location. The FilmLA monitors are powerless. It has been left to the residents, the merchants and property owners to find ways to limit production activity when production activities become unreasonable and disruptive.”
In the case in June, however, the FilmLA monitor found that the production was filming well within the limits of its permit.
“To the production’s credit,” he told Gilmore, “they minimized everything as much as they possibly can. We’re not doing anything; we’re not holding traffic at all here. Our case manager Jeff (McSpadden) has been on top of it, He made sure the crew is aware of this, and that they know that this neighborhood has rules they have to follow.”
All this might have been avoided had the production agreed to pay the $12,000.
“We would require our usual Location Agreement and Production Operational Plan, insurance certificate and site rep,” Wynn told McSpadden in an email chain obtained by Deadline. “We would also charge a location fee of $12,000 for exterior filming of the buildings along the south side of 4th Street from Main Street to Spring Street and the buildings along the east side of Main Street from 4th Street to Winston Street.”
Wynn informed the location manager that “You should note that there has been previously scheduled maintenance starting tomorrow on and around Pete’s Cafe and the San Fernando Building, as well as on the buildings on the south side of 4th Street. The trees and awnings will be covered and there will be workmen in the area.” (So much for not disturbing patrons during prime brunch hours.)
“No one person or entity should have control over any region of the city and the ability to obtain a film permit,” McSpadden told Deadline. “The payouts have reached a tipping point and are bordering on excessive and extortionate. Production companies will choose to go elsewhere. We need to be pulling in more productions instead of pushing them out.”
In the end, McSpadden didn’t pay Gilmore anything and the shoot wrapped production and was out of the Old Bank District in a few hours.
If this were the only incident of Gilmore making trouble for downtown filmmakers, few in City government would have taken notice. But it’s one of many that location managers complain about.
“Gilmore does all kinds of crazy things,” said a veteran location manager. “If you don’t pay him he will put workers out there and hang blue tarps from the building.”
At 10 o’clock on the morning of May 3, a production crew arrived at the corner of 4th and Main to shoot a Mazda car commercial. The producers had a permit from FilmLA, but they didn’t have Gilmore’s permission to shoot there.
On that morning, one of Wynn’s agents told the producers that if they didn’t sign his contract, blue tarps would be brought out to cover the facades of Gilmore’s buildings to ruin their shots.
In his Incident Report, a FilmLA monitor wrote that Wynn’s agent “informed me that the production had not returned Richard Wynn’s phone calls with regards to filming in the Banking District and there was no contract between Mr. Gilmore and the production. (Wynn’s agent) notified me that if the production cameras faced Mr. Gilmore’s buildings, blue tarps could be used to cover the buildings for maintenance purposes.”
The monitor called FilmLA’s on-call coordinator to report the situation, and a few minutes later, Wynn’s agent repeated the threat to disrupt the shot. “(He) approached me and stated he felt the production was filming the Gilmore buildings and that Mr. Gilmore’s maintenance teams were going to place blue tarps around the buildings,” the monitor reported. “Mr. Gilmore came down and confirmed this in a conversation…to which I was privy.”
FilmLA then notified the LAPD’s film unit, which rushed to the site to make sure the production wasn’t disrupted. In the end, the threat to bring out the blue tarps was just a bluff, and the production got its shot.
“It was a very simple shoot on city property, not on private property,” recalled Jon Heglund, the production’s location manager. “They made it uncomfortable for us to be there by hassling our site monitor and they had security personnel standing around to make it difficult to get the shot. This is one of the reasons people do not shoot in LA. For my next project, I’m steering clear of that whole area.”
Wynn, however, said that it isn’t all that simple. “Public property was, in this case, a sidewalk outside of two very busy restaurants with patios,” Wynn told Deadline. “Filming activities make the public sidewalk even more congested. As well, this ‘public property’ was immediately in front of the primary entrance to a fully occupied residential building. Productions usually have anywhere from 60 to 100 crew along with cast, set decorations, cranes, lighting, extras, generators, etc. To assume that all this can take place on ‘public property’ without major disruption in a very densely populated area and without some type of control is unreasonable.”
“When we sense a bad faith description of their proposed shoot to both us and FilmLA, (we) opt to call their bluff and proceed with work that we can do any day on our buildings, sometimes which includes the use of tarps, like when we paint the trim on windows.”
Or like when a neighbor decides to mow his lawn all day next to a home where a film is shooting.
“We make money when film companies film downtown in the Old Bank District,” Gilmore said. “We welcome it, we encourage it, but we try to control the impact as much as we can and most film companies, particularly the major studios, work closely with us,” Gilmore said.
Many location managers, however, say that Gilmore’s antics are making it too difficult, time consuming and costly for lower-budget projects to film in the Old Bank District. “Every single location manager knows about it,” said a location manager who complained to Film LA about his disruptive activities. “It’s not a secret. When I first complained about it to the other location managers, they said, ‘Why don’t you know about this?’”
Gilmore dismisses such criticism. “Within the industry in general,” he said, “it is only a relatively small group of chronic complainers that generally feel burdened by the downtown LA guidelines and see me as the primary hurdle to getting free reign in downtown’s new residential areas, specifically the Old Bank District.”
Gilmore has his advocates on the filming side. “I’ve known them for 15 or 20 years and always had great experiences with them,” said location manager Tom Lackey, a sentiment echoed by several others Gilmore sent Deadline to for comment. “Wynn leans over backwards to be helpful. They’ve always gone totally out of their way to help me. I always look forward to calling them.
Eric Fierstein, location manager for HBO’s The Newsroom, which has used the Old Bank District on numerous occasions to double for New York City, said, “I think they’re fantastic. We’re finishing up our third season, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been down in the Old Bank District and never had one single issue.”
“I’ve always had positive experiences with them,” said location manager Jason Savage. “They tell me what the price is and what the limitations and guidelines are up front. Last season we were down there twice for three days straight shooting NCIS: Los Angeles and everything went smoothly. They are absolutely fair and square.”
“They’ve been really great,” said location manager Matt DeLoach. “They promote filming. If you just stick by the rules, everybody’s happy. That’s the main deal with them.”
Nevertheless, some of the location managers Gilmore suggested Deadline contact don’t see it that way.
“They’ve created a huge problem for us and might even have driven production out of town,” said one manager who asked not to be identified. “It’s so difficult to work downtown because of them. We are at their mercy, shooting LA for New York or Chicago. It’s not fair. FilmLA should get a little more involved with them and try to get them to change their policies.”
Though declining to discuss Gilmore specifically, FilmLA president Audley said: “Our goal is always to try to balance the needs of a neighborhood with the needs of the film company. Sometimes that results in the film company and the property owner reaching an agreement for reasonable compensation for business impacts. But we also know that neighborhoods that show hostility or request high fees for filming make it more difficult to make the case that LA is a great place to film.”
In its latest move to curb anti-filming activities, the City Council on May 30 instructed the LAPD to report on the feasibility of creating a “rapid response capability to deploy officers near location shoots when notified that individuals near film productions are engaging in extortive behavior against filming.” Currently, that job is handled by the LAPD’s six-member Contract Services Section Motion Picture Work Permit Detail, which has been gathering information about Gilmore’s activities.
“One of the main problems is that the industry isn’t reporting these instances to the proper authorities,” said Sgt. Lisa Turvey, head of the LAPD’s film unit. “We are willing and able to respond to any complaints of interference or potential extortion activities associated with filming.”
Deadline has learned that the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office has been looking into those complaints.
“I welcome the Office of the City Attorney to engage in this conversation,” said Gilmore. “It’s about a balance, really, and it’s way bigger than just me.”
Deadline’s Anita Busch contributed to this report.