Turning your home into a movie star

Proud home owners can make up to $10,000 a day, simply by renting out their stylish abodes to film production companies – as long as they don’t mind hordes of crew and the occasional elephant in their living room. Alex Brooks investigates for Sunday Life magazine.

location homesDon Gillies designed what he calls his “ultra-modern pad” in 1961 and has barely changed a thing since. The wood panelling, textured wallpaper and funky light fittings were “just the thing” when he created the most modern house he could conceive of for the land he’d bought in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Everything old is new again and the 82-year-old pensioner’s taste is cool once more. Location scouts discovered Gillies’s humble mid-20th-century abode six years ago. Now he earns up to $1000 a day just for opening his front door to film crews. To date, his home has been the star of advertisements for the Commonwealth Bank, the Adelaide Skycity casino and the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority.

“I caused quite a stir when I went into the bank and told them they had pictures of my house on their walls,” says Gillies, gleefully recalling how he showed tellers a swatch of his lounge room’s way-out wallpaper to back up his story. An even bigger excitement was seeing his house on the telly for the first time. “I could barely keep my eyes off the TV waiting for the ad to come on,” he says. “I was like a little boy.”

Location scouting

Forget looking out for the Mr Whippy van. Gordon McKenzie, of Ecomlocations, is prowling the streets of Sydney in his silver Suzuki Vitara adorned with thenumber plates “LOC84U” and he’s offering sweeter treats than any ice-cream man. He says most home owners can earn $500 to $1500 a day for a shoot. Some houses command up to $10,000 a day if they have spectacular views.

TV commercials are the easiest and most lucrative earner for home owners. “Movies are more intrusive,” says McKenzie. “You often have to move out while they do the shoot.”

But weighing up a hotel bill against location fees might make the inconvenience attractive to some. “We had one house that earned $36,000 in just one year. That’s a nice little earner in anyone’s books.” The architect-designed mansion had all-important easy access for trucks.

Gillies is reaping the rewards of never updating his interiors after his divorce in the 1970s. “It was just me on my own and it suited me,” he says. He did replace his orange-striped three-piece lounge suite two years ago – to the annoyance of an ad agency art director.

“This woman came to look at my place and kept asking, ‘Where’s Stripy, where’s Stripy?’ I thought she was talking about a cat but then realised it was my old lounge,” says Gillies. “But it was sagging. It was over 30 years old.” Not that crews usually shoot his furniture. “They take everything out and put it in a truck. That’s the thing – your house just isn’t yours when they are here.”

Melbourne location thrills

Boredom prompted Melbourne mum Mary Ann Fox to register her large home on Melbourne’s outskirts with Ecomlocations. A Korean company paid her $500 a day for a fashion shoot at the ranch-style farmhouse surrounded by landscaped gardens complete with old wagon wheels.

“Truthfully, I probably do this because I’m looking for excitement,” says Fox, who works in financial services. “And it’s a great way to pay off your mortgage.” Here’s another bonus – the money can be tax-free. At the time of publishing, the Australian Taxation Office treats it in a similar fashion to people selling used cars so profits can be pocketed, provided it’s a hobby rather than a business.

Art teacher and divorced mother-of-three Julie Phillips owns a swanky beachside house in Sydney that commands up to $2000 a day from advertising clients such as Telstra and Myer. Cosmetics brand Olay and Woman’s Day magazine have also made the best of the home’s minimalist rooms and ocean views.

Phillips says she signed up with Ecomlocations three years ago out of desperation for money following her divorce. Phillips’s narrow beachside street has been parked out with large trucks and more than 60 people have been in her house at once with cameras, heavy equipment and lights.

Sometimes the excitement goes beyond the hectic pace and razzamatazz. “Lots of the crew are very good-looking guys, which is a bonus,” she says, laughing.

It’s not all upside. During one shoot at her house last year, lights overheated the toughened glass on the balcony, shattering it into the swimming pool below. “The pool had to be emptied and refilled and the glass had to be replaced at $2000 a sheet,” she says. “But because I had a good location manager, it was all paid for without any hassle.”

Experienced location managers

Melbourne’s Paul DiCintio of Allformat Locations, Chris Stansen of Locations Plus, Sydney’s Chris Beckwith of Big House Locations, and Gordon McKenzie and Paul Manos of Ecomlocations are all experienced location managers. They not only register people’s houses to be used as locations but also oversee agreements that protect home owners from potential damage.

Retired real-estate director Graeme Hall is happy to help location scouts find interesting and quirky residences through his old contacts. He earned a couple of thousand himself when 2000’s The Wog Boy featured his own South Melbourne house.

“We left one morning as the crew arrived at 7am and they moved all our furniture out,” he says. “The next night, we returned after dinner and it was like no one had even been there. Later, I was flying to Rio de Janeiro and my wife and I burst out laughing because we looked up and saw our house. They were playing the movie on Colombian Airlines.”

Hall’s former company owned and managed the St Kilda apartment building whose rooftop featured in the TV series The Secret Life Of Us. The show’s producers paid the building’s body corporate about $5000 for the two series. That the rooftop’s old rubber membrane needed a costly resurface afterwards – the foot traffic and cameras took their toll – “was a pain,” says Hall. “We wouldn’t do shoots like that in that building again. It’s just too vulnerable.”

Secret Life line producer Ross Allsop says the show gave tenants wine and restaurant vouchers after each shoot. “You need to keep people happy,” he says. “You don’t want them to turn around and say they don’t want you shooting in a building – that would be disastrous halfway through a series. And costly.” The Esplanade building has since featured in at least two commercials, including one for Target.

Allsop – who has worked on locations in Sydney and Melbourne – says it is cheaper and easier to shoot in Melbourne. City of Port Phillip film liaison officer Madeline Getson says the council received only a few complaints from neighbours about parking during the making of Secret Life.

TV commercial producer Carolien Foley, who has made ads for Pantene, Kellogg’s, Toyota and Century 21 in Melbourne and Sydney, says Sydney is more difficult to work in. “The councils act quickly the minute a neighbour complains,” she says, explaining that some Sydney local councils not only charge hundreds of dollars for parking permits but can also slap film producers with hefty fines.

“A good location manager makes sure all the neighbours know what’s happening in advance to avoid that sort of problem.”

All about Neighbours

No wonder Network Ten soap Neighbours is shot in the southern city; Ramsay Street is Pin Oak Court in Vermont South.

“Grundy’s are protective of that relationship,” says publicist Natalie Kaplan, who wouldn’t verify a rumour that a British fan had bought one of the houses.

The Pin Oak Court residents put up with plenty of hassle – there are weekly TV shoots, with the street blocked off and security guards to shoo away nosy parkers. A Melbourne company runs bus tours to the location, allowing curious tourists to get a gander into the houses.

Location managers say the owners are likely to have signed lucrative agreements that forbid them to change the exteriors of their home without permission as even a letterbox change could be catastrophic for continuity.

It seems disaster is only ever a hair’s breadth away. If a crew shooting a beer ad in Machu Picchu can damage an ancient Incan ruin, as it did in 2000, imagine what can be done to a suburban Australian bungalow.

Grips and gaffers can scrape walls and floors with bulky equipment. Tungsten lights can overheat and burn holes in wooden floorboards or set off fire alarms and sprinkler systems. “I’ve had that happen,” confesses Allsop, who has also worked on Love My Way. “And let me tell you, the water’s usually been in the system for between five and 20 years so when it comes out, it’s revolting.”

One of Chris Beckwith’s early jobs, in the 1980s, demanded he find a Sydney house large enough to accommodate an elephant for a flavoured-milk commercial. The elephant had been trained to answer a telephone and the handlers kept the animal happy between takes by feeding it hay in the garden.

“The shoot went well and the elephant did what it was supposed to do,” he says. “But I had to pay two guys to hand-pick the straw off the lawn for two days after that shoot. It taught me the value of drop sheets.”

During the past 10 years, it’s become standard procedure to use drop sheets over floors – even in the absence of an elephant. There is no eating, drinking or smoking allowed on the premises. If a home owner’s furniture and knick-knacks are moved, then the art department takes photographs so the room can be restored to its proper order after the shoot.

“We suggest home owners look at a film crew coming in the same way they might prepare for a party,” explains Gordon McKenzie. “You would take highly valuable trinkets out of harm’s way.”

Ecomlocations pays part-time scouts to source locations. “You have to have an eye for it,” says scout and photographer Simone Doctor. “It might be a beautiful house with amazing colours, like the blue house with a hot-pink door I just photographed, or a traditional Aussie house with a gorgeous veranda.”

Her technique is to walk up and knock on the door. “About 98 per cent of [owners] agree to do it,” says Doctor, who gets paid $65 to supply Ecomlocations with 80 to 120 images of one house. If the property is booked, Simone “babysits” it during the shoot and earns a larger fee of between $400 and $800, while the home owner might get $1500.

Director Damien Toogood, who has made award-winning ads for Olympus, Pepsi and Coca-Cola, says multimillion-dollar mansions are most commonly used for campaigns he works on, simply because they are the only houses large enough to fit in the 30-plus people that are required on set.

“It’s not always about aesthetics,” he says. “Sometimes it’s about practicality as well. There is no way a tiny terrace in the inner city is suitable for large trucks and a big shoot. To be honest, I wouldn’t want a film crew in my house. I don’t think it’s worth the hassle. All that effort for a few hundred bucks or maybe a grand? No way.”

How to turn your home into a movie star

  • Don’t change your home’s interior or exterior to make it more appealing as a location. “It’s like being an actor going for an audition – you don’t know what they’ll like or not like,” says hot-property owner Don Gillies.
  • Ask ad agencies or film production companies to recommend a location manager, says television commercial producer Carolien Foley.
  • The trend is for what Chris Beckwith, of Big House Locations, calls “modern classic” houses: “That old-money look – Edwardian, Georgian or Victorian. Something that shows the attention to detail and has large rooms but with all the cornices and fireplaces painted white, maybe with polished floorboards.”
  • Remember that fads come and go. “Ten years ago, a wonderful blue and buttercup kitchen was used in just about every ad,” says Ecomlocations manager Gordon McKenzie. “Suddenly, the market turned off it. Now everyone wants white kitchens. But that will change, too.” That said, large, open-plan kitchens that spill into family rooms are always in demand.
  • It takes all kinds, says McKenzie: “Houses don’t all have to be Nicole Kidmans; they can be Judi Dench. Character is what sells. Young beauty is always enchanting but if a house is unique, it will be asked for many times.”