Harassers squeeze film crews in Calif.

March 16, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

Scene 1; Take 1: A radiant young actress bounds up the church steps. Strains of organ music fill the air. Suddenly, in the midst of "Here Comes the Bride," a bystander blows a foghorn. . . . Cut!

The director tries the shot again. Once more, the foghorn blares. The disruption continues until a $200 payment is arranged for the horn's "rental." Finally, silence descends on the location. But by then the light has changed. The bride has lost her glow. And overtime costs have accrued.

Scenes such as this are growing more common in California, film industry representatives say, as an increasing number of opportunists prey on on-location film crews with a harass-for-cash extortion scheme.

In a random survey of production personnel, the California Film Commission documented scores of cases in which residents, merchants, gardeners or others held film crews hostage by disrupting work until a wallet cracked open.

So widespread is the problem that the highest levels of state government have stepped in to find a solution, fearing economic loss for California as production companies get fed up and relocate out of state.

State Sen. Herschel Rosenthal is sponsoring legislation to allow off-duty officers to ticket nuisance-mongers and drag them to court. His bill has the backing of Gov. Pete Wilson, the state Trade and Commerce Agency and the film commission.

"It's blackmail," said Mr. Rosenthal, who sits on the film commission as an appointee of the Senate. "When I heard about it, I thought maybe this is something that is happening only occasionally. But it's quite amazing. All over the place, people are blatantly saying, 'I won't sound my horn or blink these lights if you pay me $500.' "

Most incidents have occurred in Southern California, where film crews and their sprawling equipment are themselves sometimes regarded as a disruption to neighborhood life. But the scam has also surfaced in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, San Luis Obispo and elsewhere across the state.

"There are grumpy people out there who do this out of sheer greediness," said Patti Stolkin Archuletta, director of the film commission. "These aren't thugs or criminals, just people who have this idea that the film industry is a cash cow with deep pockets."

In California, film production amounts to a $16.3 billion industry, with about half of that sum spent on payroll, according to commission figures.

Industry personnel noted that, in the field, time is money and delays due to disruption prove costly. Some said the incidents left them exasperated enough to consider moving their operations to out-of-state communities that welcome the attention and revenue that filming brings.

Lest there be doubt about the extent of the trouble in California, Ms. Archuletta points to the fact that most production companies now routinely include in their filming budgets some money to pay off harassers. For a solid grasp of the problem, the commission mailed confidential surveys to 572 television and movie producers, location managers and others. One-fifth of the surveys were returned, with half the respondents reporting they had been victims of intentional disruption. Among the responses:

"In one incident in Culver City, someone actually resorted to throwing things at the crew. This individual was compensated for the disruption. After filming was in process, he decided the compensation was not enough and decided to throw empty cans."

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