Your school as a film star?

Cash-strapped California schools court film and TV crews as part of a scramble to recover lost revenue.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Los Angeles, wannabe actors aren't the only ones preening for the camera or punching their agent's number into the cell. These days, schools are vying for their close-ups, using the money from their film or TV cameos to help offset huge budget cuts.

The connection would seem made in casting heaven: Schools desperate to bring in dollars join with filmmakers who crave access to the brick facades and shiny classrooms that will help them weave their spell.

Take Columbia Pictures' current project, a film by James L. Brooks called "Spanglish," which will feature Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, and Anne Bancroft. A single shot calls for a character to walk across the entrance to a school, through falling rain. For this fleeting moment, which - if it survives the final edit - may last less than a minute, the company will bring in 120 crew members, an 80 foot crane, water trucks, up to five 18-wheelers hauling cameras and equipment, the "honey wagon" with bathroom facilities, and a 40-foot catering vehicle.

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The crew will spend three days on the campuses of McBride Special Education Center and Grand View Elementary, working over the weekend. For their inconvenience, the two schools will receive a total of $5,650, according to Susan Yackley, the liaison between production companies and L.A. schools.

McBride and Grand View are mere newbies in the world of school filming, but clearly other schools are clamoring to get in on the act: In two years, Ms. Yackley's directory of "film-friendly" schools has grown from 19 to 160. The increase has coincided with California's economic slide, and is compounded by the loss of revenue from soft-drink contracts after the state - driven by health concerns - banned such vending machines in schools starting Jan. 1.

But not everyone agrees that auditioning for movie and TV roles is the right way for public schools to recoup such losses. Filming sometimes disrupts class time, and the revenue stream it creates is uncertain at best.

Getting rid of the Coke machines at Alexander Hamilton Senior High School will eliminate $10,000 a year in revenue for the Los Angeles school, says assistant principal Randy Cornfield.

The school has a facade dating back to the 1920s, and has been able to provide locations for scenes in such TV shows as "Judging Amy" and "Once and Again." Its gymnasium was the site of a prom in an episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Still, with all that exposure, the school earned only between $6,000 and $8,000 last year.

The money goes into the principal's discretionary fund and helps supplement instructional materials, says Mr. Cornfield.

But "there's no consistency to the money [coming from production companies]," he says. "We can't count on it to fund a program or add staff."

At University High School, assistant principal Ali Galedary is more bullish on the revenue from film companies. His school is among the most popular sites in the district, and filming brought in $25,000 last year. The Jim Carrey film "Bruce Almighty" and the TV show "Oliver Beene" are just two of the productions filmed there. In addition to the fees, companies often make donations of equipment or furniture. For example, 20th Century Fox donated new lunch tables and another production company provided new desks.

But not everybody is thrilled with the production companies' recurring role at University High. In December, a student opinion piece in the campus newspaper, complained that administrators didn't keep students and teachers informed about how the money was being spent.

School officials at University High have said that students would be welcome to attend budget meetings and see for themselves, but skepticism persists. One teacher says the money would be better spread among departments, not just allotted to the groups or classes who might have been displaced during filming.

While district schools charge the basic rate of $1,700 per day to film on any of their campuses, schools popular with filmmakers, such as Beverly Hills High School and Torrance High School, have felt free to set their own rates. Beverly Hills was charging about $6,000 per day, according to published reports, but a film industry employee says such schools are recognizing that they need to be more competitive.

Some schools are even willing to re-landscape. Grant High School, for example, replaced its palms with deciduous trees, so it could more easily stand in for an East Coast prep school.

Fermin Davalos, who has worked as a location manager for such films as "Looney Tunes: The Movie," and the last two "Matrix" installments, and now is working on "Spanglish," says he tries to make sure that the crew is respectful of the school setting. "The attitude we go in with is that we're guests," he says. "But there's always one guy who will try to sneak a smoke [on smoke-free school property].

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