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A Guide to Scouting and Managing Locations

Federico Muchnik, author of "The Strategic Producer," offers this guide to scouting and managing locations for independent films.

The following is an excerpt from the book, The Strategic Producer by Federico Muchnik. A filmmaker with 30 years of experience, Muchnik has produced content for PBS, ABC Television, Disneyland, and HBO. He has also lent his skills as an actor, writer, editor, and director to a number of feature films and independent documentaries. The Strategic Producer: On the Art and Craft of Making Your First Feature is published by Focal Press and available for purchase on Amazon.

Once the production has a location list, scouting begins. Essentially, location scouting means getting into a car and driving around. The reason you drive around is because during a scout there are often happy accidents – you literally stumble upon what you need. So the name of the game is getting out of the production office and into the field. The sooner you are out and about, the better. This is not something you put off until later. Later will be too late.

While location scouting, ask yourself these questions:

Does the location align with the script and the director’s vision?

As a producer you have to pay attention to your director’s vision. If a script calls for a warehouse scene, you, your location scout, or the director may scout out a half dozen warehouses. Each warehouse comes with a different set of characteristics and conditions which you’re going to learn about as we go through this list.

Your director may want the warehouse by the beach because it aligns with their vision, but you may not because the location owner wants too much money and won’t negotiate. The warehouse near the turnpike is free and kind of looks like the one on the beach. After all, a warehouse is a warehouse. If your director won’t budge and persuades you that the beach warehouse is different enough from all other warehouses, and if they tell you that using the turnpike warehouse will compromise their vision to the point of damaging the film, perhaps you need to revisit your location fee line item in your budget and see if you can either up the overall amount or redistribute part of the existing amount to accommodate the beach warehouse.

Conversely, you can determine that your director’s vision will be just fine in the turnpike warehouse and that there’s simply no money in the budget to clear the beach warehouse.

In both cases, there will be consequences that may or may not work in your favor. For example, by giving in and clearing the beach warehouse you’ve gained leverage for future negotiations with your director; “Look, I got you the beach warehouse, cut me some slack on the restaurant location, okay?” By clearing the turnpike warehouse you may have to compromise on something later on; “Okay, I agree. We cut corners on the warehouse scene – let me see what I can do about the restaurant.”

Can you get the location for the total amount of time you need it for?

Continuing with our warehouse by the beach, (let’s assume we got it, persuading the owner to come down on their price in exchange for a small cameo and the name of his business prominently displayed in the scene’s establishing shot), the production is going to need unfettered access to the location beyond the amount of time you plan to actually shoot there.

Advance locations are locations being prepped by advance crew members while the production is still shooting at a previous location (which may have at one time been an advance location). Good producers know that advance location work is a major time saver. They dispatch grip and electric crew, art directors, and production assistants to the beach warehouse to prepare as much as possible prior to the production’s arrival. They communicate with each department (lighting, grip, art) and ask them how much setup time they’ll need at the advance location. Then they try to give the crew the time and resources, both human and material, so that people can do their job as well as possible. And after the scenes at the beach warehouse have been filmed producers make sure to budget enough time and money to allow for the dismantling of everything and a clean, successful rebuild of the location to the way it was before the production arrived. Good producers know that by leaving a location the way they found it they are paving the way for a future film production to have a successful engagement with a happy location owner. Trashing the place only alienates owners, turns them off to film productions and, frankly, does not send a good feeling or vibe through the ranks of your crew members. People want to take pride in their work and a good crew will always want to restore a location to its original state, but only if they’re given the time to do it. In a word: you will need access to a location, before, during, and after the actual shoot.

Is the location easy or difficult to find and travel to?

Our beach warehouse may align with a director’s vision and also be very easy to find and get to.

Conversely, that warehouse by the turnpike may be lost in a sea of other warehouses and hard to find. Getting there requires taking the exit ramp and then a sudden unmarked, hidden right turn void of any signage, then driving a quarter of a mile down a side street, etc… But, despite the complex directions, the turnpike warehouse is only fifteen minutes from town (where your cast and crew lives), while getting to the beach may be easy but requires a two hour drive.

Here, again, producers must weigh the pros and cons and, in tandem with their core team, make the decision that best serves the production. One question to ask of the above scenario might be: is the location worth driving two hours for? The answer may be: it’s not worth it, forcing the production to opt for the turnpike location. On the other hand there may be several reasons why driving to the beach is worth it; the warehouse scene may be so mercifully small in scope and so brief in length that a “skeleton crew” can be sent out and back, guerilla-style (smaller crews move faster and are more agile).

Or perhaps the beach warehouse location fits in as a stop during a larger multi-day road trip during which time the production travels together housed and fed on the production’s dime, a not uncommon occurrence. Or perhaps the beach warehouse scene is actually a series of scenes. In fact, the majority of the film takes place inside the warehouse in which case travel times are all but eliminated because the production is housing and feeding the cast and crew over several days, by the sea. Moreover, if the budget allows it, that warehouse may function as a series of additional locations; warehouses are perfect for set construction. Apartments or offices can all be built, centralizing a production, reducing travel times, and strategically moving the film production towards completion.

Is the location free or is there a cost?

We can divide locations into two broad categories: locations on public land (certain municipal or government structures, parks, sidewalks, streets, bridges, tunnels, etc…) and locations on private land (small businesses, company buildings, private homes, malls, etc..). Generally speaking, the cost of clearing rights to film on, for example, a city sidewalk is not prohibitively high.

Unless they have had awful experiences with previous film shoots, municipalities will be inclined to authorize a location. They may charge a permit processing fee and request that one or more of their police officers be present and paid by the production. That officer’s job is to make sure your production isn’t endangering anyone passing by. Some municipalities dispense with an on set officer but alert the police department that you’re going to be filming at the appointed time and place.

A public location can also be very costly. The footbridge in New York’s Central Park is an iconic location and clearing it for your production will cost you many hours of work as well as more than just a permit processing fee. In addition to permitting public spaces, municipalities “sell” parking meter time in advance, allowing productions to “buy” metered parking spaces days or weeks in advance of their shoot. This is not just a great and inexpensive way to reserve space for your trucks and cars; it’s also a way to free up room to set up your camera and create a playing area for the scene you’re there to film.

Every location is different. Each municipality has its own rules and regulations. Things get a little tricky if you’re filming on a public city sidewalk in front of, for example, a privately run business. If you’re pointing your camera at the business, if you’re in the way of customers coming or going into the store, or if you want to film in the store’s doorway, you’re going to have to negotiate with the business owner.

Again, as with the owner of the beach warehouse, cameos and/or including the store’s signage in the film is one way to negotiate a more reasonable deal. Location fees range from free to hundreds, to thousands or tens of thousands of dollars per day. If you’re reading this excerpt, chances are you are going to want to spend as little as possible on locations. How much should you be prepared to pay? Start low; perhaps one hundred dollars for an apartment. If the location owner asks for five hundred dollars, they’ve just hit what I’d consider the maximum amount I’d consider paying for an apartment location. That number, five hundred, is also my limit for businesses, public spaces, company buildings, and almost all types of locations. But if a scene requires a shootout on an airport runway or a chase scene inside a supermarket I understand that I’m going to have to pay more.

A word about stealing locations. Most independent films steal locations. You’re literally swooping in, spending minimal time with a skeleton crew, not disturbing anyone, and then you’re suddenly gone. You risk getting shut down, but hopefully by the time you’re caught you got the shots you needed. Here’s a better way to steal a location: take advantage of today’s advanced camera technology which allows for filming without having to bring in your own lights, learn what time of day the location, public or private, is the least frequented, then approach the location owner and ask them if they can spare an hour or two for you and your skeleton cast and crew. If you’re filming in their restaurant tell them you’ll feed your people there and assure them you’ll leave the place as you found it and will be done when you say you will be.

Does the location have a holding area?

Keep in mind that at every location you clear you’ll need the actual space you want to film in and everything around that space. The space around the set is probably as important as the set itself. If you don’t have a holding area for actors, or a place to store gear, or a place to have off set conversations with other crew, or a place to set up a table with refreshments, you’re going to have a rough day.

Are the location owners easy to work with?

Because filmmaking has been so glamorized at the outset everyone wants to be a part of a film production. Location owners are no different. Early conversations will be smooth, positive, and promises will be made. You’ll find people easy to deal with. After all, you’re offering them money to put their home or business in your movie, because that’s how cool their home or business is.

But as you begin negotiating the days and times and the degree of access you need, the location owners will start to shut down. The more details you provide, (and you need to provide those details or at least the important ones), the less they want to hear. As the shoot date approaches people may panic and want to back out. Shooting in someone’s home is a major inconvenience to that homeowner and it would be best if, during your shoot, that owner was absent. As you track your relationship with the location owner try to determine how reliable they are. If they’re making noises about canceling your shoot, don’t force the issue. Consider looking elsewhere. If they’re being compliant, are willing to sign a location release in advance, and are not making waves prior to your shoot, chances are they are going to be easy to work with. But what if they’ve behaved up until the day of the shoot and now realize what they’ve gotten themselves into, are angry, and want you to leave immediately?

In a sense, this type of situation is actually very easy to deal with. Take them off your film set, perhaps out onto the street, show them the signed location release, tell them that you have an agreement and that you’ve upheld your end of it by paying them the location fee.

If that doesn’t work and they try to sabotage your set by interrupting the shoot, let them. They will very quickly realize that stopping thirty or more people from doing their jobs is a fool’s errand; your production is like a gentle but inevitable steam roller. It will simply roll over anyone trying to stop it. As your angry owner come to realize this they’ll either storm off the set and return when you’re done or they’ll embrace the chaos of production and befriend your cast and crew who’ll befriend them back. Wise producers understand that difficult people need to act out on their impulses before they can become reasonable and honor their agreements.

It’s worth adding here that location owners that have hosted productions before yours will understand what it means to have a film crew in their home. Location managers know who these people are because they’ve done business with them in the past. When you meet these veterans you will find them to be more level headed than first timers.

When you find a location you think might work, take pictures. Cover it from as many angles as possible. Look at what free, pre-existing art direction you might benefit from (thereby reducing the work load for your production designer and art director). Upload those photos to Google docs or Dropbox. Share them with your stakeholders.

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