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The Mall Coming To A Theater Near You

The West Edmonton Mall is ready for its close-up.

The 5.3-million-square-foot mall in Alberta, Canada, billed as “the greatest indoor show on Earth,” entertains 100,000 shoppers daily with jugglers, musicians and performing sea lions.

This spring it's going to be center stage in a different kind of production as the property serves as the backdrop for Insight Film Studios' Christmas in Wonderland. The picture, starring Leslie Nielsen, Chris Kattan and Ray Liotta, depicts a scenario in which Santa Claus has decided to relocate from the North Pole and set up shop in West Edmonton Mall instead. As a result, the property will be featured prominently throughout the film.

Wonderland writer and director James Orr, also writer of Three Men and a Baby, “scoured the world” for a mall to use in his film, eventually narrowing his search to West Edmonton and the equally sprawling Mall of America in Minneapolis (both are owned by Triple Five Group).

“When I was first looking for the location to set this movie, I said I needed the mall equivalent of the Land of Oz,” Orr says. “Then I visited the West Edmonton Mall, and it was only a matter of seconds before I knew this was it.”

The mall's owners in turn are already trying to leverage the property's rise in prominence, according to West Edmonton COO Gary Hanson. They are anticipating that the production will draw an additional 2,000 customers a day. And the property will delay the arrival of its traditional mall Santa to coordinate with the movie's planned Thanksgiving release and keep him at the property until April 1. Mall management hopes to ride the wave of publicity the film will generate through a lengthy box office run. Moreover, they plan to continue to use the film after it is released on DVD in marketing campaigns every Christmas.

“The benefits are huge,” Hanson says.

Hanson is hoping for the kind of payoff FAO Schwartz got in the mid to late 1980s from the movie Big. He points to the sequence where Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia tapped out Chopsticks on an oversized keyboard. That scene helped drive traffic to the FAO Schwarz in New York City for years after. “That's the type of reaction we hope to achieve here.”

But there are still risks, especially if the movie fails to find an audience.

In the short term, Hanson acknowledges that accommodating Wonderland's 120 cast and crew members (not to mention film trucks and equipment) will be a disruption for tenants. However, he and his colleagues in Alberta's tourism industry see a big payday, with its role in the film boosting traffic to the mall and to Edmonton for years to come and that will more than balance out any temporary shortfalls. As a result, the 26-year-old mall took the unusual step of paying the studio for the appearance; however, Hanson declined to state how much. The city of Edmonton also pitched in, and a local consortium of hotels is offering free rooms and other services to cast and crew.

Although they've waived the fee for Wonderland, West Edmonton, and most other malls, typically charges film studios to use a shopping center in a location shoot, with prices fluctuating depending on the mall's prominence in the scene. West Edmonton, for example, charged $5,000 a day when a band shot a music video in its indoor lake, complete with underwater scenes. Good Luck Chuck, an upcoming film starring Jessica Alba, reimbursed the mall to use its penguins in a scene. Neither production identifies the mall by name in the scenes.

That's a conundrum owners face. Malls and movies have had a long association. In addition to mall-centric films like Mallrats, Scenes from a Mall, Valley Girl and two Dawn of the Dead flicks, malls have served as backdrops for memorable scenes in dozens of other films and television shows. A search on the Internet Movie Database for the keyword “mall” returns 162 titles.

Is it worth it?

Some owners have found that allowing production teams to use their property as a backdrop serves as a great marketing tool for the property and its tenants, in addition to providing some revenue in fees paid by movie studios. But the potential disruption of a film shoot — especially one that may include explosions or lots of effects shots — may be too much for an owner to bear.

As a result, not all mall owners are keen to let movie shoots in when Hollywood location scouts come calling.

While West Edmonton is being featured prominently and will be immediately recognizable in Wonderland, that's not the norm.

Located minutes from major Hollywood film studios, Burbank Town Center in Los Angeles enjoys a reputation among location managers as a film-friendly mall. (In fact, you've probably seen it in a television show or commercial and just didn't know it.) The center has enhanced efforts in recent years to lure film and TV business, according to Kate Calkins, the mall's marketing manager. Burbank Town Center has worked with Cold Case, Gilmore Girls and Desperate Housewives, to name just a few.

Jim O'Neil, executive vice president of Crown Realty & Development, which owns Burbank Town Center, says Los Angeles residents feel a responsibility to support the film industry. “A lot of productions are going to Canada and other parts of the country,” he says. “We're all about trying to keep our hometown business local.”

Burbank is listed in the Creative Handbook, a guide to local resources for Hollywood film producers, and sends its representatives to an annual conference of location scouts. Scouts review film and TV scripts and work with directors and production designers to find the appropriate setting.

In all, Burbank Town Center has raked in $260,000 in the last two years as a result of film shoots. Mall retailers, O'Neil says, have not found film shoots to be disruptive and enjoy a boost in revenues thanks to additional sales from the cast and crew.

Mall executives encourage crews to visit its food courts and retailers. The Forever 21 chain of clothing retailers saw a spike in sales after an episode of Gilmore Girls featured the Burbank location, says O'Neil.

Burbank Town Center and other malls in Los Angeles also profit by renting parking to film crews. Studios pay Burbank a daily rate of $10 per car.

Last summer the mall welcomed the TV show Cold Case for filming after it had been turned away by several shopping centers. The mall was not going to be identified on the show, but several owners were skittish about fictional scenes involving a gunman on a bloody rampage, in the wake of real-life shooting incidents.

Cold Case had struck a deal with another Los Angeles mall but it was rejected two days before filming began. The show turned to Burbank and found quick approval, agreeing on the daily rate of $10,000. Signage on some stores was changed, and retailers received $250 to $1,000 to compensate for interference with sales.

Filming started at 4:30 a.m. during the three-day shoot. Until 10 a.m., when the mall opened, scenes involving “submachine guns and gun blasts not conducive to shopping” were filmed, says Veronique Vowell, location manager for Cold Case. Quieter scenes were shot during mall hours, and cast members covered in fake blood hid the gore with oversized shirts if they left the set.

Mall operators say the hype of film shoots can pique the curiosity of shoppers and retailers; but it can also spawn confusion. For Cold Case, Burbank had extra security officers deployed to reassure customers that the gun massacre was staged. A Gilmore Girls shoot that confined extras to an empty retail area also caused bafflement. “Retailers asked why we were holding customers in a store and wouldn't let them out,” Calkins says.

Many location scouts seem to know each other, and word of convenient shooting locations spreads throughout the network. Infomercial producer Steve Purcell heard of Burbank through a location manager and chose the mall to shoot an ad for Zeno, a handheld acne zapper.

The shoot involved setting up a kiosk, which Burbank approved while other malls resisted. “Because they'd done other production there, they knew how to speak the language,” says Purcell, who paid $2,000 for a day of shooting.

Life after death

At some malls, show business is the only business these days. Abandoned malls serve as locations for shoots allowing crews to film at all hours without disturbing shoppers. But, vacant shells require extensive preparation to be ready for filming.

One such mall is Hawthorne Plaza in Hawthorne, Calif., a short drive south of Hollywood. Studios lease the mall for use from Kodevco, a real estate development and management company that furnishes the film industry with lofts, warehouses, exercise studios and other locations.

In the 2001 feature Evolution, a prehistoric creature breaks into a mall and draws gunfire. For such a scene, “it's better to have a closed mall,” says Kokayi Ampah, location manager on the film. The shooting sequence took several days to complete and involved more than 300 cast and crew members, including extras.

Readying Hawthorne for the shoot required cooperating with the local fire department to ensure safety. Because the mall had fallen into disuse, crew members also had to clean it and dress storefronts to make it appear functional.

Using an abandoned mall is “a double-edged sword,” says location manager Gregory Alpert. “It's great that you have maximum control,” he says, but dressing the mall takes time and money.

Alpert knew of Hawthorne Plaza from Ampah and used it for Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. That also required restarting power, hiring workmen to restart escalators and elevators and steering clear of mold. Alpert and his crew saved themselves trouble by dressing only the ground floor. Digital effects filled in higher floors in the film. But later waves of film crews have probably benefited from the work Minority Report crew members invested in preparing Hawthorne Plaza, such as replacing light bulbs, Alpert says. “Like a Boy Scout, you try and leave it better than you found it,” he adds.

Upscale setting

He also considered an empty mall when scouting locations for Dr. T and the Women, a 2000 film directed by Robert Altman. But the production lacked the money to turn an abandoned mall into the upscale shopping center the script required, so it had to find an operating mall where it could film.

Up stepped Dallas's NorthPark Center, whose owner appreciated the arts and welcomed the chance to host an Altman film. Alpert feared that a scene in which Farrah Fawcett stripped naked in a mall fountain would complicate matters. “I thought that could be tricky, a deal-breaker,” he says. “But they said no, it's fine.”

Producers paid only a dollar — in cash — to the mall, Alpert recalls. The film identified North Park and retailers such as Tiffany's, and Altman used store names on screen as sly allusions. As Fawcett romps in the fountain, the camera pans to show a Godiva sign.

The crew shot overnight for two nights, shining lights through NorthPark's skylights to create the illusion of daytime and paying store employees about $200 apiece to keep them on hand for assistance.

“Both were really great experiences,” Alpert says of his various mall shoots. “But Dallas was more fun, to film in an actual working environment.”

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