Lights, Camera, FBO

Business aircraft operators and pilots have long sought out Jet Center Los Angeles to avoid the high cost of flying, noise restrictions and curfews plaguing neighboring airports, but they likely are not aware that the full-service FBO boasts another claim to fame. Amid the roar of plane engines and the smell of jet fuel at this Jack Northrop Field/Hawthorne Municipal Airport FBO, camera crews may be calling: Lights! Camera! Action!

Several years ago, the premier FBO and EPIC fuel dealer, owned by Advanced Air Aircraft Services, uncovered a niche revenue market in the filming industry. Since then, television shows, such as Revenge and CSI: Miami, have used the facilities multiple times. The site has also hosted filming for America’s Next Top Model, Mercedes, Honda and Southwest Airlines commercials.

Boosting revenue is the primary benefit of tapping into the television and movie market, according to Jet Center Los Angeles General Manager Donny Sandusky, who says the FBO lands about 10 films a year. “It offsets the costs of operating this facility and having the hangar space,” he says. “When a hangar is sitting at half capacity, using it for filming helps us meet our costs.

“In fact, loaning out our facility for filming probably accounts for 3 to 5 percent of our total revenue,” adds the general manager of the once Million Air franchise that transitioned to its own brand two years ago.

Lending out its facilities also shines attention on the airport itself. There is promotional value in the fact that the FBO has been used for filming. “Many times people come to the airport for the first time and say, ‘I’ve seen this airport before,’ ” Sandusky says. “It brings a few more eyes here.”


Get a Starring Role

“While a large percentage of entertainment is filmed on sound stages in Culver City, Hollywood, Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, the images you see on movie and television screens do not all come from studio lots,” reports the California Film Commission in “Your Property in a Starring Role.” Anything from natural landscapes to public spaces, private homes—and yes, FBOs—may be used for filming purposes.

Though JetCenter Los Angeles’ proximity to the film industry offers some inherent advantages (filmmakers often look to this FBO, situated just two miles east of LA, when the studio is booked), filmmakers everywhere tend to see FBOs as attractive filming sites. Sandusky explains producers find an FBO’s hangars, acres of concrete ramp, taxiways, well-appointed offices and flashy executive terminals to be captivating footage locations.

“We have a large hangar, that’s 17,000 square-feet, 36-feet tall, and wide open, and they really like the size of it,” he says. “The other 50 percent of the time they are looking for tarmac and an airport scene.” He notes Revenge used JetCenter Los Angeles’ hangar, ramp, tarmac and a Gulfstream jet in its footage.

An FBO is also a less expensive and more accessible alternative than an airport itself. “There are limited airports who will give them access for filming,” Sandusky says. “Here, they’re not going to get access to LAX, though they can sometimes get it at Van Nuys or Long Beach.”

Film scouts hunt for filming locations that match their scripts during the preproduction phase of filming. This process begins with a phone call. In order to simplify the steps and avoid having individuals make unnecessary trips, it’s helpful when an FBO designates its available space upfront. JetCenter Los Angeles, for example, lists five available filming zones with a space diagram and photos on its website. When a location scout calls seeking a specific type of space, i.e. a large hangar or a length of tarmac, FBO personnel send them to the website. If the location seems to match the script, scouts visit to walk and photograph the site, says Sandusky. The producer makes a trip out later; if the location seems workable.


The Price to Play

Sandusky recommends asking some key questions before arriving at a price to play. These include:

  • What type of production is it?
  • How many shooting days are expected?
  • What times of day will filming occur?
  • How many hours a day will people be on set?
  • What types of activity will take place during filming?
  • How many people will be there?

The answers to these questions help dictate a price. “The standard is $500 per hour with a minimum of $3,000,” Sandusky says. “If they will be there multiple days, we work out a daily rate.”

Filmmakers also must pay for all additional expenses. JetCenter Los Angeles requires an escort for every 20 people on site, and the film company must cover the cost. “We are bringing non-badged personnel out to the airport so we have to make sure we go with them to ensure they stay within designated areas, and that we let them in and out. Escorts also make sure our tenants and customers are not adversely affected, and if they are affected, it’s in a positive way,” says Sandusky.

The fee for escorts might change per day. For instance, on set up day, only one escort may be needed because there are only 15 people on set, but on filming day there may be 100 people and five escorts necessary.

Clean up responsibilities lie with the film company too, and all areas used must be restored to their original condition before they leave. Airplanes must be returned to their correct locations, and while FBO employees perform this service, there is a charge.


Permit the Pictures

An FBO must provide filmmakers with a detailed list of restrictions or conditions pertaining to the use of the facility, as well as local permitting information. JetCenter Los Angeles expects the companies to gain a film permit through the City of Hawthorne. The FBO also mandates that film companies carry liability insurance, the amount of which is determined by the activities and the potential risk involved.

The city airport manager visits the site in advance and reviews all plans then specifies safety requirements. For example, he may indicate an area needs cones and additional signage or that it must be roped off. All of these things must be agreed to before shooting occurs.

During filming, the city also supplies several employees to oversee operations and maintain safety. The employees include uniformed police officers and a fire marshal.

Filmmakers also need FAA approval to move vehicles on a taxiway or use a crane or boom that sits higher than existing buildings. Typically this permitting/approval process involves so much red tape that Sandusky says filmmakers find a way to accomplish their goals without navigating the FAA’s sea of requirements.

“Because it’s at an airport, there are requirements you need to hop through to make it work, and sometimes those requirements make it non-competitive,” says Sandusky. “But if you’re a filmmaker and you need an airport shot, you have no choice but to meet these requirements.”

That being said, there are few restrictions once approval is granted. “We have had requests to blow something up, and we have said, ‘Anything is possible as long as you get the proper permits,’” says Sandusky. “If it makes sense financially, everyone is kept safe, the facilities are fine, and it’s permitted, we can pretty much do anything.”

The caveat is that filming cannot interfere with the FBO’s core business. To date, Sandusky says that hasn’t been an issue. The FBO had America’s Next Top Model film in its lobby, and it didn’t affect operations at all. Likewise when planes needed moving, owners were compensated accordingly with a break on their rent.

“Customers cannot see filming as an inconvenience,” says Sandusky. “We are very careful to make sure we provide the same high level of service to our FBO customers during filming, because we don’t ever want them to say, ‘We’re not going back there because they care more about filming than they do us.’ ”

The venture into filmmaking has been an Oscar-worthy performance for this Los Angeles FBO. Says Sandusky: “It’s a great side venue for revenue to come in. We are actually looking at adding another hangar and working with studio owners to set it up so that it’s a little more attractive for filming.”

He adds, “That kind of says it all: We are shelling out money to build a new hangar so that film crews want to use us more.”