Using Your House for a Movie or TV Set Can Be Lucrative but Also Disruptive

New Yorker Mary Kay Seery, 60, a real-estate broker, recalls that people were shocked when she and her husband, Billy Seery, 61, moved in 1998 from the East Village to Prospect Park South, a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its detached Victorian houses. At the time, it was considered the height of uncool by some of her friends.

“They were like, ‘You paid $490,000 for a house in Brooklyn? Are you crazy?’ ” said Ms. Seery.

Their real-estate agent assured them that they would make hay when the TV and movie location scouts arrived. “You’re going to make a lot of money,” Ms. Seery recalled her saying.

TV Shows like ‘Girls’ and ‘The Affair’ Have Filmed in This Brooklyn Home

Mary Kay Seery’s house has starred in numerous films and TV shows over the past 20 years

Mary Kay Seery and her son, Quentin, on the porch of their Brooklyn home, which has been featured in many films and TV shows.

Tayler Smith for The Wall Street Journal

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Ms. Seery was skeptical until fliers from scouts started appearing in her mailbox. “I’m sure we’ve made over $500,000 so far,” Ms. Seery said, adding that they have made $86,000 apiece on two shows: “Girls” on HBO, and “Mysteries of Laura,” an NBC police procedural. Showtime’s “The Affair Season 3” came next. Their home was a stand-in for a New Jersey residence and some steamy encounters that didn’t always take place in a bedroom. “Neighbors would come over,” Ms. Seery remembers, “and say, ‘Did you watch that show? Did you see what happened on your kitchen countertop?’ ”

While state film commissions have increasingly brokered relationships between property owners and filmmakers and location agencies will shop your property for a fee, many—if not most—production companies do it the old-fashioned way. You don’t find them. They find you.

Rian Akey, 49, who works in risk consulting, and Shaun Kane, 41, who works in marketing, found a production company flier in the mail slot of their home on the Far North Side of Chicago in June 2019. They met with a scout that month but heard nothing all summer.

Finally, in September, location manager Nick Rafferty chose their home as the Smutny Funeral Home in the FX crime drama “Fargo Season 4.” The setting was 1950s Kansas City and the home of Messrs. Akey and Kane—a four-story Queen Anne built in 1885 that they bought for $850,000 in 2016—fit the bill.

“We were pretty surprised by how quickly they transformed our house into a funeral home,” said Mr. Kane. The set designers added wallpaper in most rooms, then tobacco-stained the wallpaper to give it a yellowed appearance. They installed a swinging door between the dining room and the kitchen, Mr. Kane said.

There was also a coffin. “The living room was made into the receiving and viewing area for the funeral home,” Mr. Kane said. “The coffin sat at one end with an organ to one side. There were rows of folding chairs in front, flower stands on each side and sideboards for coffee and tea service during a viewing. We pretty much avoided that area of the house.”

The exterior of the Akey/ Kane home, which was featured in the FX drama ‘Fargo Season 4.’

Photo: Kevin Serna for The Wall Street Journal

Filming began in October 2019 and was supposed to take six months. “We stayed there except for the shoot days,” Mr. Kane said. “They started very early in the morning and shooting went into the evening or even overnight.”

When Covid hit, production ceased on March 11 with only one or two episodes left to film, said Mr. Kane. They didn’t return until Aug. 29 and the show didn’t wrap production in the home until Sept. 8. Instead of six months, the show was in their house for 11.

Shaun Kane outside his home.

Photo: Kevin Serna for The Wall Street Journal

“We had a coffin in our living room for almost a year,” said Mr. Akey. It took another month for the location crew to return the home to its prior state, including reinstalling the wrought iron fence that surrounded the property and reseeding the lawn. Messrs. Akey and Kane said they were satisfied with their fee. “We certainly didn’t do it just for the experience,” said Mr. Kane. They wouldn’t discuss the amount due to a nondisclosure agreement.

NDAs have become standard with the proliferation of social media, said Mr. Rafferty, the location manager. “Homeowners may overhear confidential conversations or be privy to the plot or story line,” he said, especially when shooting scripts are left lying around the house. “The last thing the studio wants are images of the show on social media while the shoot is on. They also don’t want the neighborhood to know what they’ve paid for the shoot.”

Location fees are tied to union labor costs, from the stars to the set dressers. The production’s size also has an influence. “What parts of the house we’re using, how extensive the renovation will be, how long the shoot will last and whether homeowners have to be put up in a hotel” are all factors, said Mr. Rafferty.

“I make sure homeowners understand that when we do a deal, we’re starting a journey and don’t know what things will look like at the end. I begin every negotiation with ‘we want to make it worth your while.’ The producer hires me to figure out what that means,” said Mr. Rafferty.

A scene being shot in the kitchen of the home of Messrs. Kane and Akey, upper left, and what it looks like when not serving as a location.

Photo: Kevin Serna for The Wall Street Journal

Carroll Belser remembers the 2002 South Carolina shoots for “The Notebook,” a romantic drama with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams based on Nicholas Sparks’ 1996 novel. As Ms. Belser recalls, she was with her 4-year-old niece who had a crush on Mr. Gosling and became incensed during a love scene with Ms. McAdams. When their lips met, she shouted “Yeech!”

Another scene was shot on the Sunnyside Plantation in a small guest cottage that, in the film, served as the home of the character played by Sam Shepard. Located on Edisto Island, a barrier island about a 45-mile drive from Charleston, Sunnyside has been in Ms. Besler’s family since at least the early 1800s and consists of several buildings including the remains of a cotton gin. Ms. Belser’s great-grandfather built the three-story, 4,000-square-foot main house in 1875.

“My late father had done L.L. Bean shoots there before I owned the house,” said Ms. Belser, 68. She works with Appleseed, a women’s clothing line that does catalog shoots mainly on the front porch of the main house.

Ms. Belser said she was paid $2,000 a day for the shoots. “They paid my dog, Gumbeaux, a Labrador retriever, $500 to be on the cover with one of the models. He always was a handsome devil,” she said. She was also paid $2,500 in May for a one-day shoot for a TV pilot “Short Term Rental.”

Although location hosts are well paid, the production company can occupy your home in a disconcerting way. After an agreement is made that only certain parts of a home will be filmed, some production companies may go to places they said they wouldn’t—for example, after agreeing to use only the kitchen, they may want to shoot in a bedroom.

“Make sure they first agree to pay extra,” Ms. Seery said. “And make sure you have a good relationship with the location manager.”

Location manager Tom Yeager said that if a house is featured, even just for exteriors, homeowners need to sign off on a location release, which usually includes a location fee. Productions will normally not get a release or make a payment if a home is only incidentally shown in a shot or is in the background.

Cheryl McFeely, Ms. Seery’s neighbor who has allowed her home to be used as a production location for 20 years, has seen the downside of filming.

“They will typically wreck your floors during a shoot,” she said, adding that the foot traffic of people and equipment can take a toll.

The front porch of the guest cottage at the Sunnyside Plantation after filming ‘The Notebook,’ left, and during the shoot with Rachel McAdams, Sam Shepard and Ryan Gosling.

Photo: Kelli Boyd for The Wall Street Journal; Melissa Mosley/New Line Productions

Ms. McFeely, 64, who purchased her home in Prospect Park South for $335,000 in 1994, started by hosting commercials. That led to a location shoot for the 1998 film “A Price Above Rubies” with Renée Zellweger and Julianna Margulies. “Half Nelson” with Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps was also shot at her house, she said. During the 2006 shoot of Edward Burns’s “The Groomsman,” neighboring homes also got roles for which homeowners were paid.

Ms. McFeely’s last shoot was “The Great Gilly Hopkins” in 2015 with Kathy Bates playing an eccentric hoarder who adopts a teenage daughter. Ms. McFeely’s house served as the Bates character’s home for a few months. That shoot netted Ms. McFeely $85,000.

“The money is great,” she said, “but after we had our floors replaced, we decided to stop the shoots. We didn’t want damage to our new floors.”

Ms. Seery says she’s had other damage done to her home but said that follow-up repairs made things right in almost every case.

She also tempered the notion that filmmakers will beat a path to your door just because your house is beautiful. “It doesn’t matter how savvy you are or how stunning your property is, it has to be a place that can become part of the story. If it doesn’t work for the show, it won’t work as a location.”

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