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Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Take One: Realtors Get Stars in Eyes When Film Crews Visit
By Sam Spatter

Movies have been big business in Pittsburgh in recent years, and the local real estate industry has shared in the glitter. With 48 major televsion and feature movies filmed here since 1990 - plus numerous other films and commercials - the film business has brought approximately $183 million into the regional economy. Part of that spending has been for renting or buying homes or apartments.

Dawn Keezer, director of Pittsburgh Film Office, often calls on local realtors when she needs housing for cast members or sites for filming. When called, they have responded exceedingly well, she said. Often, it takes a lot of phone calls to find the right housing for film personnel. Some agents have used vacant houses that are up for sale, or large, stately mansions in some of the area's more affluent communities.

Many times it's a friend, a relative, an acquaintance or a neighbor who is willing to vacate a home for a short period and allow it to be rented. It can be a financially worthwhile inconvenience. The rents come pretty high - as much as $12,000 to $20,000 a month in areas such as Sewickley Heights, according to area realty agents.

Houses in the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Shadyside and Squirrel hill have commanded from $2,500 to $6,000 a month, plus utilities, agents say. The agent's commission is included in the rental fee. Realtor Cuppy Kraft has found housing for such stars as Sharon Stone, who came to Pittsburgh in 1995 for filming of 'Diabolique,' and Woody Harrelson when he was [in] town for production of 'Kingpin' that year.

Both wanted a 'small and cozy house, close to Walnut Street,' said Kraft, of Cuppy Real Estate. She said both stars leased houses in the Shadyside-Squirrel Hill area because they liked to walk and wanted the availability of the shops and restaurants on Walnut Street. Over the years, Kraft has established a short list of homeowners willing to lease their houses to film personnel.

In some cases, owners have second homes where they can move temporarily. For example, Kraft recalls when the owner of a Shadyside house was spending the summer in Nantucket and how happy she was to rent her house for this purpose. "When the choice for the movie company is a vacant home, it may be necessary to rent furniture for use during the filming period, Kraft said.

Sometimes, a homeowner is asked to agree to special arrangements to accommodate a star's individual habits or customs. For example, Harrelson likes to sleep on a mattress on the floor. Kraft said the owner of a house where he was staying agreed to allow his bed to be moved out of the bedroom. Most film personnel like to be close to where their movie is being filmed to eliminate travel time, according to Kraft. Usually, the stars, producers and directors are driven to the filming site.

'We find that many movie personnel don't want to lease houses in the suburbs if the film is being shot within the city or nearby suburbs,' Kraft said. But Jebby Potter Prudential Preferred Realty's Sewickley office has found a different experience with movie personnel. She's seen rentals of large houses in such Allegheny County suburban communities as Sewickley, Sewickley Heights, Edgeworth and Ben Avon.

When 'Lorenzo's Oil' was being filmed in the area, Potter helped find housing for Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte, stars of the production, and for director George Miller and producer Doug Mitchell. But it didn't stop there. Other members of the movie company looking for temporary quarters included costume and set designers and assistant directors. During filming of another movie, 'Roommates,' Potter found a house in Edgeworth for director Peter Yates and his wife.

Some Hollywood types prefer smaller houses. But others want large houses which would afford them privacy. Some like house amenities such as a swimming pool or tennis court. If the movie takes an extended time to be filmed, many bring their families with them, Potter said. If they have children, they may enroll them in a local school during their stay here. Sometimes, realty agents go out of their way to provide more personalized service.

Potter said her husband, Tom, who also works at the realty office, often took Nolte golfing. 'Nolte is a golf fanatic,' she explained. Also, on occasion, there's an extra benefit for the real estate agent. For example, Potter said she had a short acting career when she played the banker's wife in 'Lorenzo's Oil.' Shadyside Inn has proven to be a popular spot for film personnel looking to lease housing. Rental units in the Shadyside facility are completely furnished and come fully equipped from the salt shaker and utensils in the kitchen to the linen for the beds in the bedrooms.

Michael Plesset, a partner in the inn with his brother, R. Jeffery Plesset, recalls playing host to such stars as Paul Newman, Jodie Foster and more recently, Sally Field. 'We also provide housing for directors, producers, set designers, costume designers, the camera people and other members involved in the production,' Michael Plesset said.

"Although Shadyside Inn offers a completely furnished apartment, some items may have to be changed to conform to the celebrity renter's wishes. 'One person insisted we replace aluminum pots and pans with steel pots and pans,' he said.

There have been times, although not often, when Shadyside Inn had to turn away a member of the Movie industry. Plesset said he was unable to accommodate Randy Quaid when the star was in town for 'Kingpin' because all the units with king-sized beds were taken. That was one of Quaid's requirements, he said.

Keezer's Pittsburgh Film Office often asks real estate agents to find specific types and styles of housing for a movie crew looking at Pittsburgh. Bill Horne, director of corporate accounts in the relocation department of Howard Hanna Real Estate Service, said his company was asked to find large Victorian houses with considerable 'gingerbread' covering on the exterior.

The houses had to be located in areas that were not too far from the city, but at the same time, would provide some isolation. In addition to being a movie center in its own right, this region has been a role player in films being shot elsewhere. Even then, the local real estate industry can sometimes be involved. Rose Mance and Diane Wroblewski of Northwood Realty's Franklin Park office said they helped find housing for members of Russo Davis Productions Inc. of California, who were in town to shoot the reaction of local residents to certain types of horror scenes.

'Ted Russo contacted us after they failed in their attempt to find temporary housing for their stay in the area,' Mance said. She and Wroblewski filled Russo's needs with an apartment complex in Wexford. Mance was told Pittsburgh was just one of several cities where the company was shooting scenes for producer Ron Howard, who spent several weeks here viewing the filming. The scenes were shot in a vacant warehouse in Bridgeville.

Area commercial real estate owners and commercial realty agents also benefit from the movie industry. For example, a commercial building on Centre Avenue in Shadyside was leased for four months by the producers of 'The Christmas Tree,' a production filmed last year with Sally Field as director. One individual deeply involved in assisting film producers obtain sites for shooting movies is Jeanne Baseman of Fox Chapel.

Baseman is not a real estate agent, but she is a film location scout. Her job, she said, is to find properties needed by the film producers. Film producers look for large houses, somewhat isolated, that can provide enough ground where up to 100 people can work at one time,' said Baseman. There also must be enough space available for their trucks and equipment, including areas set up for feeding the cast members and the production staff. Baseman, who is one of about five film location scouts operating in this area, said she usually finds these types of houses in Fox Chapel, Sewickley and Emsworth. But she's also uncovered sites in other locations, such as nearby Washington.

'The owners who lease their houses can be paid anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 a day,' she said. She is paid per diem by the film company, and receives no commission based on the rental amount, no matter if she's helping a cast member find housing for finding locations for the 'shoot.' Baseman said she only works part time as a scout since she is married and has two children.

'I got into this business about eight or nine years ago because of (director) George Romero, who has been a major reason why Pittsburgh has become a movie site location,' she said. Keezer said she is pleased with the service provided by area realtors. She said movie personnel obtain insurance to protect themselves against any damage to the property. If there are priceless objects in the house, such as an antique vase, they may have it removed and stored somewhere to prevent any damage, she said.