Tom Keith’s property, on the banks of the Black River in southeastern North Carolina, is remote and quiet. Spanish moss drapes from the trees. There are log cabins that date back generations, some with weathered, peeling paint.
It’s the perfect setting for a spooky scene.
As it turns out, the production crew on the horror film The Conjuring agreed. The creative teams behind I Know What You Did Last Summer and the television series Sleepy Hollow thought so, too.
For decades, Keith has been renting out his property to film crews. It's a side gig that's not uncommon in certain parts of the country where the film industry is booming. Whether in reality shows that aren’t shot at celebrities’ real homes, prime-time sitcoms, or blockbusters from major film studios, many of your favorite on-screen homes are in fact real homes—lived in by ordinary people.
“When you build it on stage, it never looks quite the same,” says Bass Hampton, who has worked as a location scout and manager for 23 years.
For homeowners, allowing your house or yard to be used for filming is a chance to meet production crews and famous actors, and get a unique behind-the-scenes view of movie-making magic.
How Much Can You Earn?
It’s also an opportunity to earn some significant cash—although the amount can vary, depending on the budget of the production, the size of the house, and the location. (A ritzy neighborhood in L.A., for instance, is going to command a different price than a street in rural Louisiana.)
Hampton, who’s worked on several Nicholas Sparks movies and was the location manager for the current hit Get Out, generally pays a minimum of $1,500 a day for exterior filming and $2,000 a day for interior shots. Prep and wrap days are worth at least another $500 each.
Fees in and around New York state run anywhere from $1,000 to $35,000 for a day of filming, says Patti Brashears, who owns Featured in Film, a location agency.
Another key factor: what happens in the script. For the movie 2 Guns, an action comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington, location manager Rebecca Puck Stair had to find a house where the crew could crash a helicopter into a front window after blowing up a bag of fake hundred dollar bills. That’s more disruptive to a homeowner than filming a simple romantic "walk and talk," she says.
For major films, a home probably won’t be used more than once or twice. But TV episodes and especially commercials will return to the same homes multiple times—especially if the owners develop a reputation for working well with production crews. That can mean anything from being friendly to the crew to having a property that can be easily redecorated or reconfigured, say location scouts.
And being a repeat customer has a variety of perks. By renting their home for roughly a dozen commercial shoots, Ann and Mark Rogers have met politicians running for office and had a part of their house dressed up for Christmas. After Gold Bond filmed an ad in their home north of Atlanta, the Rogerses, who are regular Jeopardy viewers, saw a familiar room on the quiz show's commercial breaks each night.
Their house usually brings in between $2,500 and $3,000 a day for commercial shoots. Twenty percent of the total goes to Mellen Productions, a location management company in Atlanta that the Rogerses have worked with for nearly a decade.
For most homeowners, a shoot pays for an extra vacation or summer camp for the kids, says Brashears, who’s found locations for TV shows including Mr. Robot, The Good Wife, and The Blacklist. Some property owners don’t need or want cash for renting out their home, however. In some cases, Puck Stair has negotiated for home improvements (carpentry, painting, or deep cleaning) in exchange for filming locations. One property owner wanted to capitalize on the publicity the film’s star could bring in.
“Feel free to think outside the box,” Puck Stair says. “Think about what is of value to you and then ask if the production company can help.”
Pardon the Intrusion
Homeowners say the experience is fun, but it can be intrusive. There are 12-hour-plus filming days, and prep days where your home might be completely rearranged with new paint and furniture. Depending on the production, you could have up to 250 strangers in your house.
“When we show up, it’s a circus,” Hampton says. “And there’s no way in the world to prepare people if you’ve never seen a film shoot.”
One TV episode generally runs three to five days, with at least a day for prep and a day for clean up. Feature-length films could take weeks, depending on the scenes filmed at the house.
Commercials, by contrast, usually are shot in a single day. “A lot of people like commercials,” says Melanie Antos, of Mellen Productions, because the film crew moves in and out more quickly than on TV or movie shoots. Plus, the homeowners "make a little money and they meet some nice people,” she adds.
And don't be so quick to dismiss commercials as less glamorous than TV or movies. Mellen Productions has found locations for quarterback Cam Newton (in a Dannon yogurt commercial), and married actors Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard (for a Samsung washer and dryer).
Does Your Home Have What It Takes?
Directors are looking for homes that feel authentic to their characters' lives, so movie and TV real estate can span a range of socioeconomic levels. Many of the clients that Mellen Productions work with routinely ask to see places that feel like a run-of-the-mill, middle-class home. That means no marble countertops or stainless steel appliances.
At the other end of the spectrum, Hampton found a 20,000-square-foot mansion near Asheville, N.C., to be used in the comedy Masterminds, a film based on the true story of a 1997 bank heist. That location cost the production company $100,000 for three weeks of filming.
Hampton also worked on finding ritzy homes to stand in for lead character Victoria Grayson's mansion on the pilot of the ABC series Revenge. The final product required combined shots from two homes and some special effects to create a fictional Hamptons mansion. (At that type of high-end location, the location scout says, negotiations start at $10,000 a day.)
If you'd like to see if your home has what it takes to be a star, start by submitting photos to your local or state film commission. If you do get a knock on the door (or a letter from a scout), respond as quickly as you can, Puck Stair says. The crew will move on if they haven’t heard from you within a few days.
Before you agree, ask plenty of questions about what's involved in filming, how long it will take, and what hours you’ll have people in your house, for example. You also need to make sure the company has insurance, and that you’ll be covered by the insurance if anything in your house is damaged. Ensure that any expenses brought on by filming—from hotel stays to veterinary bills for boarding animals—will be covered by the film company.
Then, as they say, sit back and enjoy the behind-the-scenes show.
Keith, who owns the log cabins on the Black River, remembers back in the 1990s, when Bastard Out of Carolina was filming on his property. Films always cater in tasty food, and in this case, he was enjoying steak diane for the first and only time. Angelica Houston was sitting nearby, petting his dog.
“I thought, ‘this is cool for some redneck boy from North Carolina.’”