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Calif. schools ready for close-ups, cash

Film, TV shoots courted in era of budget cuts

LOS ANGELES -- With its ginger-colored brick buildings and pine trees, University High School near the upscale Brentwood district in western Los Angeles can pass for an elite Eastern college or a New England prep school. It has played such parts in movies, television shows, and commercials. Film crews have only one complaint about the school's appearance: Those showy bird-of-paradise blooms out front spoil the Ivy League effect.

Not for long. The tropical-looking plants with spiky orange-and-blue blossoms are about to be torn up.

Serving as a film location is more than a matter of fleeting glamour for University High, whose credits include the movies "Bruce Almighty" and "The Hot Chick" and television series "7th Heaven" and "Lizzie McGuire." The school collected $25,000 from movie and television producers last year, and officials want to keep the money flowing.

"We will find a way to accommodate them," assistant principal Ali Galedary said.

With school districts across California facing painful budget cuts, Southern California campuses are courting movie and television production companies as never before.

Producers pay several thousand dollars a day to shoot at schools. Some also donate furniture and theater equipment or pay for campus renovations.

So some school districts are grooming their grounds for cameo and starring roles. Others are posting photos on the Web to advertise their campuses as potential Hollywood locations.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has hired the county film-promotion agency to tout its classrooms, gyms, libraries, and cafeterias.

The number of campuses volunteering to be film locations has grown to 160 from 19 in the last year. The district's annual film revenue has doubled to $1 million, officials said.

It used to be that a film crew showed up at a Los Angeles school once every few weeks. Now, it happens nearly every day, said Susan Yackley, who coordinates and promotes filming at schools through the county's Entertainment Industry Development Corp.

"Obviously, we're in a horrendous budget crisis," Yackley said. "This is not going to solve the budget crisis, but it's going to give them a little extra discretionary money."

Some students and teachers protest that filming is disruptive and messy. Officials also worry that footage of their schools might wind up in a porn or slasher flick. They try to get filmmakers' assurances that the campus will not be embarrassed by anything sleazy or very violent.

Still, administrators say they are as welcoming as possible because they need money.

The district charges $1,700 a day for filming on its campuses. About 15 percent of that goes to the development corporation, 65 percent to the school, and 20 percent to the district, to be spread among all campuses at the end of the year.

University High has served as a backdrop for 38 movies, television shows, and commercials in the past two years.

Freebies from film companies supplement the fees it receives. Last year, 20th Century-Fox donated $12,000 worth of lunch tables to replace old, graffiti-marred ones.

This year, officials hope to collect enough from filming to pay for 1,000 new desk and chair combinations at $91 each.

Galedary said administrators allow crews to work during school hours, and are willing to move teachers or students from classrooms and other areas to make way for cameras.

"Our kids understand, and our teachers understand, that filming is beneficial to University High School," he said.

But some disruption is inevitable. For example, the location crew for "7th Heaven" usually includes 50 members, plus 100 cast members and extras. They need about 1,500 feet of curb space to park trucks.

"We are intrusive," said Woody Kane, the location manager. "When you start displacing students and teachers, you really are impacting the campus."

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