One day a stranger showed up on Sherri Milligan's doorstep and offered the mortgage broker $60,000 to let his film crew use her Beverly Hills house for a one-week shoot. Flattered, she said yes.
When the crew packed up their bags with a goodbye and thank you, she said: "Anytime" and meant it. "I realized there was a lot of money to be made just in my own personal residence," she said.
Milligan immediately took photos of her 12,000-square-foot house from numerous angles and contacted other production companies about using her property for filming. Then she called friends and neighbors and took pictures of their houses for her book. "Pretty soon, I was getting them business," she said.
So was born Sunset Locations Inc.
Milligan quit her mortgage broker job in 1999 to work on the project, which she took full time in 2001. She was then competing against a half dozen other scouting companies specializing in residential properties.
Now, the business has more than 4,500 residential properties from Pasadena to Malibu all catalogued in big blue binders in the company's West Hollywood offices.
Some of Los Angeles' wealthiest residents have consented to let their homes be used for productions, including Dole Foods billionaire David Murdock, whose new $25 million Bel Air home was used for the NBC reality show "For Love or Money" last year.
Milligan won't say how she landed that property but notes that the easy money can be a draw. "You can never have enough money," she said. And even the very rich can get a little star-struck.
Sunset Locations has booked mansions for eight reality-TV shows in 2004, and one or two reality shows per month this year, plus dozens of commercials, magazine photo shoots and feature films. Revenues hit $3 million in 2004. She added a secondary business of party planning when some of her film and photo clients started asking if she would find locations for parties, given her enviable Rolodex.
"There are only two companies that I work with, and Sunset Locations is my favorite," said Eric Westmore, production executive with 3 Ball Productions Inc., which produced the reality series "For Love or Money" on NBC and the WB's "Beauty and the Geek," both shot in mansions found by Sunset Locations. "They have great contacts. They represent the property, but they're very fair to the production company."
Real estate riches
After that first shoot in 1999, Milligan admits only "dabbling" in the business for the first two years. In 2001, she decided to get serious, drawing on the skills she'd learned during her years brokering million-dollar mortgages.
There were some early missteps. On many nights she was called out of bed at 3 a.m. because filming went into overtime. A crew once overloaded a mansion's circuit breakers and blew out power. Another time a sink was "taken apart" accidentally, causing a minor flood.
Milligan said the mishaps made her realize the need to have a staff member monitor each project, especially since scouting companies live and die by referrals from mansion owners to expand their property list.
Now, someone from her staff sits in at every location for the duration of the shoot. "They are trained to protect the house. If a homeowner says, 'I don't want anyone sitting in that chair,' there is someone there to mediate," she said.
Another precaution: Milligan requests that homeowners remove anything from the house that is irreplaceable, such as difficult to value antiques, or a piece of family china. Ditto for $2,000 cigarette lighters and other expensive knickknacks.
Nina Moshkovich lent her Beverly Hills mansion for a music video shoot last year. She was nervous at first, because the house was new, but said that Milligan instilled confidence that her property would be fine.
"I had over 200 people in my house from morning 'til night, but the next day, everything was spotless. It was incredible," she said. One day to set up, one day to shoot, and one day to clean up.
Moshkovich, who spent the day at the video shoot with her kids, admits that she still gets a kick out of seeing her home on MTV. "It's like going to the party," she explained. "My neighbors saw what was happening, and they asked me to recommend their house to Sherri also."
Milligan won't disclose how much she or individual property owners are paid but said that compensation for a homeowner can run from $10,000 for a day's shooting in a large Beverly Hills home to half that much for a home in Encino. The location of a home is the main factor, and size counts, too. But also important is the size of a production's budget.
The scouting company may get a finder's fee or a commission of as much of 30 percent of the fee, though it often runs below that. Homeowners get paid up front, rather than in installments or upon completion of filming, while production companies are responsible for putting down a security deposit, as well as an insurance policy.
The move into party planning came about when clients started asking if she would help find locations for special events. Generally the homes are large, as are the parties, with celebrities and corporate executives flying in from across the country. Party locations typically are Beverly Hills, Sunset Hills or the Hollywood Hills.
Beyond finding the right location, the goal is to minimize leaks and prevent uninvited guests showing up. Sunset Locations will arrange a remote parking lot where guests leave their cars. Then buses with blacked-out windows shuttle them to the party preserving the anonymity of the location and preventing party-crashers.
"We didn't blindfold them or anything," said Melina Manasse, project coordinator for Soho House of New York, which hosted an Academy Awards party in February. "But the sense of exclusivity is very important to the event."
Milligan placed the Soho House party in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills for the weeklong event. Each day, between 300 and 400 people came through the house without knowing the address. Soho House found Milligan through a referral from one of its members, a Sunset client.
Homes can go for $30,000 and more per night. Sunset Locations will book about 10 big parties per year, plus countless small events (small meaning a get-together for about 50 people). This side of the business now makes up almost 20 percent of revenues.
"The homeowner is generally a significant individual himself, and he'll say, I'll do this party, but I do not want one car parked on the street, I do not want my address disclosed, I want to know how many people are going to be in my home and I want to see a guest list," she said.
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